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Special session may not solve transportation woes; no deal yet on human services bill
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Gov. Pawlenty (shown with Lt. Gov. and transportation secretary Carol Molnau) says he's worried there won't be a transportation funding package passed this year. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Gov. Pawlenty is putting pressure on Senate DFLers to accept his transportation funding package. The Legislature is in the fourth day of the special session and leaders are working to resolve their differences on the three remaining budget bills and a bonding bill.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Memorial Day weekend is one of the busiest times on Minnesota's highways. But this one finds Gov. Pawlenty and lawmakers worried about gridlock of a different sort. Four days after the regular session adjourned, they still need to finish the health and human services bill, the tax bill and the transportation funding package. Using the theme of the weekend, Pawlenty says Senate DFLers are holding up his proposed transportation funding package.

"I fear they just want nothing done in transportation so that they can get into the blame game, and I'm not interested in that. We're interested in trying to improve the quality of life for people who are sitting on roads and wasting time in congestion or driving on unsafe rural roads," Pawlenty said.

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Image A shortsighted bill?

Pawlenty is proposing a transportation package that adheres to his no-new-taxes pledge. The package, which was passed by the House, would borrow $550 million for road projects and seek an additional $500 million in federal funds ahead of schedule.

Senate DFLers, however, say the bill is shortsighted. Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, says the state will be paying off the construction projects over the next 20 years.

"The governor just had a news conference and what he basically said was 'it's my way or the highway' and then he refuses to pay for the highway," Langseth said.

Senate DFLers say they've offered a compromise. Their transportation package would spend $220 million over the next two years. They would pay for it through trunk highway bonds, one time money and cuts to the Department of Transportation.

Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says their bill is more affordable because they pay for it as they go.

The Democrats had a $2 billion package with the infusion of increased taxes, so I couldn't understand in my wildest dreams why they would want to lower that number from what it is when their expectation was twice as high. It makes no sense to me.
- Carol Molnau

"The idea of borrowing $550 million is using the credit card -- $300 million worth of interest over 20 years. We as Senate Democrats find that to be unacceptable at this time," Johnson said.

Senate DFLers passed a $2 billion transportation funding package in the regular session that included a gas tax increase and an increase in the motor vehicle excise tax. They abandoned the push for higher taxes last week.

Since the Senate plan failed, Lt. Gov.and Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau says Democrats should be happy to pass their package. Molnau says the Pawlenty administration won't settle for a smaller package.

"And what would be the purpose of that? Actually, the Democrats had a $2 billion package with the infusion of increased taxes, so I couldn't understand in my wildest dreams why they would want to lower that number from what it is when their expectation was twice as high. It makes no sense to me."

Legislative leaders say they'll be ready to move ahead with the bill once they resolve the transportation funding issue. They have harder work on the health and human services budget and the tax bill.

Lawmakers are currently ironing out their differences on policy issues and whether they should use money approved by Congress to go to the states. The provision in the tax cut and economic stimulus plan could bring more than $350 million to Minnesota. Half must go to Medicaid assistance.

DFL Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger says they should consider that money to offset proposed cuts in health and human services.

"The Senate thinks it can be part of a mechanism that can be used in a way to resolve some of the differences," he said.

Those differences include whether to eliminate a program that provides health insurance to low-income adults without children. House Republicans say they would also like to raise eligibility rates for child care subsidies and MinnesotaCare, the state-sponsored health insurance program.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says he's reluctant to spend the federal money until he knows what strings are attached.

"There is a number of things that you have to be very wary about. It's one-time money. You can't make permanent spending decisions on one-time money," Sviggum said.

Sviggum and Gov. Pawlenty both say they want lawmakers to stay at the Capitol over the weekend. They say they shouldn't go home until they finish their work.

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