Funding request sparks new bridge kerfuffle

Within days of the 35W bridge collapse, Congress approved $250 million in emergency funding. State officials are still waiting to receive the bulk of that money, about $195 million. But the state budget puts a limit how much the Minnesota Department of Transportation can spend. So, State Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson says MNDoT is asking the Legislative Advisory Commission for authority to spend the federal money when it arrives.

"The concern is that if they don't increase our spending authority, then even if we did get the money, we wouldn't be able to spend it, and we would probably have to delay or defer projects," he said.

The eight-member Legislative Advisory Commission deals with state spending issues when the Legislature is not in session. Hanson says MnDOT currently has authority to spend $604 million on construction projects. But the paperwork filed along with his request says the contract for a new 35W bridge is now expected to consume half of MnDOT's existing appropriation.

"This is a way of getting around the Legislature, so the governor doesn't have to pass a transportation bill," said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing.

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Murphy, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, wants to know why a $195 million spending request wasn't addressed last week when Gov. Pawlenty called lawmakers back to to St. Paul for a one-day special session.

The Republican governor and DFL legislative leaders limited the agenda to flood relief for southeastern Minnesota after failing to reach a prior agreement on a transportation funding bill.

"Now they told us up until today that they didn't need the Legislature's help in rectifying the I-35W bridge. The commissioner said that in our committee, and now they're singing a different tune," Murphy said.

Murphy claims the governor wants to bypass a Legislature that twice passed transportation funding bills that he later vetoed. After the 35W bridge collapse, Pawlenty backed off his opposition to a gas tax increase to pay for road and bridge projects. But he still objects to DFL proposals to boost transit funding through other tax increases.

Finance Commissioner Hanson dismissed Murphy's accusations.

"We are not trying to bypass the process," he said. "We talked with him about the concept, and with the Legislature about this concept, before the special session, and they expressed a strong desire to keep it focused on flood relief. No matter what happens, we need to get their authority." If members of the Legislative Advisory Commission object, Hanson says they have the right to call for a public meeting on the spending authority request. Senator Murphy says he expects a meeting will be held within in the next 10 days.