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Senate panel votes to oust Molnau
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The main concerns legislators had about Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau revolved around last year's budget cuts, how the department handled snow plowing duties over the winter, and how supportive she'll be of transit funding. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
A committee in the Minnesota Senate has voted to remove Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau from her job as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The recommendation now moves onto the full Senate which will make the final decision on Molnau's future. Molnau serves in the unique position of holding both the lieutenant governor and transportation commissioner titles. Critics say Molnau doesn't have a balanced plan to improve Minnesota's roads, bridges and transportation needs.

St. Paul, Minn. — DFLers on the Senate Transportation Committee say they don't believe that Molnau is working in the best interest of the entire state. They complained that Molnau has frowned upon more funding for transit. They say it isn't appropriate for Molnau to say she personally doesn't support the Northstar Commuter Rail Line between Big Lake and Minneapolis but will support it politically because her boss, Gov. Pawlenty, favors funding the line.

Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, says she's concerned that the Pawlenty administration is disregarding transit for road construction projects.

"It's disturbing to me that as the commissioner of our transportation system, she lacks a vision of the total needs of all the regions of this state. And I think that speaks to qualification," she said.

Moua and seven other DFLers voted against recommending Molnau as commissioner. Seven Republicans voted against the motion. DFLer Sen. Anne Rest abstained.

Molnau is the first person in the state's history to serve a dual role as lieutenant governor and a department head. She takes one paycheck for her role. Molnau would be forced to leave her job as commissioner if the Senate votes against confirmation, but she would still serve as lieutenant governor. Confirmation is usually a formality.

Commissioners can serve months, as Pawlenty's commissioners have, before the Senate holds confirmation hearings. Appointees who have run into trouble have sometimes withdrawn before a Senate vote to avoid embarassment to the administration.

Molnau says she intends to force the full Senate to vote on the issue.

"It's a disservice to the servants to the citizens of the state. I think after having served for 14 months in that capacity, if I was inept in that sense. You think they would have found out before now," Molnau said.

Several Senate DFLers say they aren't concerned that Molnau can do both jobs. They say they're more concerned about Minnesota's future transportation needs.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, says Molnau cut overtime costs for snow plowing. He says that jeopardized safety in his Senate district.

"Now I've lived there for 46 years and this was the worst that I have ever seen. The only time that the road has been worse is right during a storm and it seemed like that in those days, as soon as the storm has let up, they were out there," he said.

Several Republicans came to Molnau's defense. Republican Senator Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen says the vote sets a bad precedent for future confirmation hearings. She says the committee was focusing too much on Molnau's policies and not enough on her qualifications.

"For you all to say this woman isn't qualified, when you have not asked even one question about her qualifications. She's qualified. Nobody asked her one question about her resume. Nobody asked her one question about the letter from the federal agencies. She's been serving in transportation for 10 years or more. I wonder who would be qualified if she is not?" she said.

While it's rare for the Senate to reject appointments, many DFLers have been critical of Pawlenty's appointments, mainly Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek and Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke.

Yecke is scheduled to appear before the Senate Education Committee later this week. Republican Senator Mady Reiter of Shoreview questions why Senate DFL leadership is discriminating against Yecke and Molnau, who she says are two qualified women.

"If this has occurred on the other side of the aisle there would have been a lawsuit for discrimination a long time ago. I do believe that this is a female issue," Reiter said.

Senate DFL leaders dispute Reiter's comments. DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar says each committee is taking a careful look at each commissioner. And Johnson says Senate DFLers are concerned about the appointees on their merits, not as bargaining chips in budget negotiations or other matters. He says the Transportation Committee voted against Molnau because she and Pawlenty weren't advocating road and transit projects.

"The answer that we get from the governor or lt. governor is 'Wait until next year,' or 'we're not going to raise taxes' or 'it's not in our plan.' Well that's unacceptable to the Minnesota Senate," Johnson said.

The governor's office says they intend to pursue Molnau's confirmation on the Senate floor.

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