MnDOT's latest figures for replacing the Interstate 35W bridge put the tab at $393 million, far more than the federal aid that has been pledged to the project.
In the meantime the agency is pressing legislative leaders for permission to spend state money on the bridge until $250 million in federal money arrives next year. Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson took that request Monday to eight high ranking legislators who make up the Transportation Contingent Appropriation Group.
Governor Pawlenty calls it more of a housekeeping item, but some members of the group worry about the timing and the legality of the request. At the Capitol key legislators spent four hours questioning Commissioner Hanson and Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau who doubles as Transportation Commissioner.
"This will allow us to move forward with the bridge and not negatively impact our 2008 construction program," Molnau told the panel which was co-chaired by House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller.
"What I really want to know is do we have a positive balance or negative balance right now?" Pogemiller asked.
"If you're asking when will we run out of money? We can’t run out of money," Molnau replied. "Therefore, I would have to cut programming."
Later in the hearing the Lieutenant Governor revealed the agency has $16 million left in its trunk highway fund for fiscal 2007 and that without legislative action that fund will go into the red by $79 million next year.
Constitutionally the state can't spend money it doesn't have, so to keep highway fund's balance ledger at zero some projects would have to suffer.
"I don’t have the authority, the legislature has to give that to me without affecting other projects," Molnau said.
Molnau added that no state agency could have been expected to budget ahead of time for the collapse of an interstate bridge over a major river.
"It’s very difficult to believe we’d have that sort of cash waiting for something to happen, and we do not."
Democrat Steve Murphy, the head of the Senate Transportation Committee and author of the two transportation bills vetoed by Governor Pawlenty, sees MnDOT's budget crunch differently.
"Red numbers are red numbers and it doesn’t matter whether they’re in your checkbook at home or the state’s checkbook, you’ve got serious financial concerns," Murphy said. "There’s no understandable budget gap at all. This is all on the governor's and the lieutenant governor’s shoulders."
Democrats are still clearly disturbed by the fact they didn't get to deal with the bridge collapse and wider transportation issues during the September special session. Many, including Senator Murphy, insist the $195 spending authority decision shouldn't be left to a small group and it shouldn't be done until the money's legally committed to the Minnesota.
"They don’t have the authority to do this and that’s the bottom line," Murphy said. "We’re going to get that bridge fixed, but we want to do it legally."
That line of reasoning clearly ruffled some feathers in the Pawlenty administration. During the hearing Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson became visibly annoyed by the notion that what he's seeking is beyond the scope of the law.
"We have done this before. You passed your bill based on authorization, on anticipating federal funds, we’ve done this. It is not illegal."
Hanson told Murphy nothing has changed in state law or the consitution since the last time leaders granted emergency spending authority between actual sessions.
"Maybe we just disagree," Hanson told Murphy. "But we’ve done this before. I don’t know what magically has happened, all of a sudden you think it’s illegal."
When asked if, as a former legislator herself she's comfortable with approving this spendign without involvement of the full legislature, Molnau said she is. In fact, she said she signed off on one such request while she was still serving in the House of Representatives.
"They would say MnDOT needs to move these funds over from this account. Do we need to meet, or can we sign off?" Molnau recalled. "And we understood exactly what they were doing, so we signed off. It’s been done many times before."
(Copyright 2007 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)