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Pawlenty says deficit won't stall transportation plan
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Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty talks with a MnDOT employee Friday about how to improve service to state residents under budget constraints. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty says he won't let a massive budget deficit prevent him from proposing a transportation plan next year. The state faces a budget hole of $4.5 billion over the next two-and-a-half years. Pawlenty says his transportation plan won't be as large as he'd like, but he says he can't ignore the state's transportation crunch. Pawlenty toured the state Department of Transportation Friday, and told state workers he needs their help to balance the budget.

St. Paul, Minn. — During the campaign, Pawlenty proposed a transportation plan that relied on borrowing $2 billion over the next decade for road projects. He opposes raising the gas tax to pay for transportation projects. Despite the deficit, Pawlenty says he will still propose a package next session that relies heavily on bonding.

"To service the debt on the bonds, it does have an impact on the general fund budget," says Pawlenty. "So this is not going to be as bold or as dramatic as we'd like, but we'd at least like to move the ball forward somewhat."

Pawlenty says his first task is the two-year budget he must submit to the Legislature in mid-February. He says his transportation plan will come later in the spring. During his first post-election stop at the state Department of Transportation, Pawlenty urged MnDOT employees to give him their suggestions for cutting government spending.

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Image Gov.-elect Pawlenty and Lt. Gov.-elect Carol Molnau spoke to MnDOT employees

"We're looking for ideas. And we're looking for innovation, and we're for change," Pawlenty says. "But we want to have it come from people who know what they're talking about. And so we'll be informed, but we need your help and we want to do this as a team."

Pawlenty said he won't balance the budget on the backs of state employees -- a comment that drew applause from MnDOT employees. He says he will likely give state workers incentives for early retirement. That could have a major impact on MnDOT, where about two-thirds of the department's engineers and technicians will reach retirement age during Pawlenty's term.

During his campaign, Pawlenty said his running mate, Carol Molnau, would be a "one-woman SWAT team" who would shake up the Transportation Department. But Molnau says Pawlenty's campaign description of her may have put unnecessary fear into MnDOT workers.

"I'm actually a grandmother, you know, a kindly little lady," Molnau told the employees. "The goal is, we need to have employees that feel good about what they do, and feel like they make a difference. It doesn't work to have the morale of employees drop."

Molnau -- who chaired the House Transportation Finance Committee -- and Pawlenty got a look at some of the latest technology employed by MnDOT. Pawlenty got in the driver's seat of a snowplow that has radar displays, which show the edges of the highway in a complete white-out.

MnDOT employee John Scharffbillig told Pawlenty that technology advances will help state government become more efficient.

"Technology is one of the answers to helping us provide safer roadways for the traveling public, as well as getting goods to and from market, which helps in the tax deficit and everything that we've got already," Scharffbillig said.

Pawlenty asked him what the snowplow cost. "The bare truck is $110,000 in state costs," Scharffbillig responded.

Pawlenty will be asking more questions about costs over the next couple of months as he prepares his budget. He says he will address the deficit without a tax increase, and he rejected calls for expanding the sales tax to clothing or building a state-run casino. Pawlenty also said he'll try to name his transportation commissioner by the end of the year.

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