Senate dismisses transportation chief Molnau

MnDOT's Carol Molnau
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Democrats have long criticized Molnau's dual role in state government, serving simultaneously for the past five years as lieutenant governor and transportation commissioner. They also criticized her management of the transportation department. That criticism intensified after the 35W bridge collapse last summer.

During the Senate debate over her confirmation, Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL- Minneapolis, said the state's transportation system is crumbling.

"A commissioner is certainly not responsible for everything that happens there, every individual thing, for every bridge that is deteriorating," he said. "But in totality, the commissioner in my judgement is responsible maintaining the public structure that taxpayers have paid for."

The confirmation vote came just three days after the DFL-controlled House and Senate overrode Governor Tim Pawlenty's veto of a $6.6 billion funding package for roads, bridges and mass transit. With new tax revenue on the way, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, described Molnau as the wrong person to be in charge.

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"Today we have the ability and also the duty to move Minnesota forward with a new management team at the department of transportation that will forge a new beginning in the area of transportation for our state," he said.

Senate Republicans stood united in their defense of Molnau. They claimed the move to oust her was motivated more by politics than her job performance. Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna said Molnau was hampered by the Legislature and a lack of state funding.

"You can vote to get rid of the transportation commissioner and bring on the next transportation commissioner," he said. "But I'm going to tell you what. She's done one fine job with the money that we've given here. We have shirked our responsibility in transportation up until just a week ago."

Supporters also insisted that Molnau was able to balance her state duties. Sen. Betsy Wergin, R- Princeton, said Molnau saved the state money by only claiming her lieutenant governor salary.

"This is a lady that in her capacity, in her ability, and I mean strong ability to do two jobs at one time, has saved this state in wages alone a half a million dollars," she said. "And you know what we're doing to someone who did that? We're firing her, and it's wrong. She doesn't deserve it."

After the vote, Carol Molnau issued a written statement in which she said that serving as transportation commissioner had been one of the best experiences of her life. She also added that she was proud of the agency's accomplishments. A agency official said Molnau would not have further comment.

Gov. Pawlenty also had little to say about the confirmation vote. During a news conference to discuss the budget deficit, Pawlenty told reporters that many positives things happened during Molnau's time as commissioner.

"The Senate exercised their prerogative today," he said. "I'm disappointed that they chose to do that rather than to work in a [bi-]partisan manner, but that's within their prerogative. And now we'll move ahead."

Pawlenty named Bob McFarlin, who served as Molnau's assistant, as acting transportation chief. He said he'll name a new commissioner within the next few weeks.

Pawlenty has been down this road before. In 2004, the Senate ousted his first education commissioner, Cheri Yecke. Two months later, Pawlenty picked Republican Rep. Alice Seagren to fill the vacancy.