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Highway projects would cease under government shutdown
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The Interstate 494 bridge, which spans the Mississippi River, is being rebuilt to handle more traffic. Dozens of highway projects would grind to a halt if state government shuts down on July 1. (MPR file photo)

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - At least 175 major highway construction projects would be shut down on July 1 if Gov. Tim Pawlenty and state lawmakers fail to agree on a budget before then, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau said Monday.

As members of the Senate Transportation Committee chafed at the notion of a shutdown, legislative leaders who appeared jointly on Minnesota Public Radio's Midday program showed no signs of advancing toward a deal that would avert a partial government shutdown.

Besides stoppage of highway projects, state officials said a shutdown would mean that 88 highway rest areas would close, the state would stop issuing drivers licenses and the Stillwater Lift Bridge - a major river crossing into Wisconsin - would be closed.

"I'm hoping that through the work that you do, you can help avert this," Molnau told the Senate Transportation Committee. "The cost to this agency and to the citizens of Minnesota would be great."

When my constituents ask me what's going on, I tell them I have to eat at the kiddie table. I don't get to eat at the adult's table. I'd like to.
- Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chaska

Sen. Steve Murphy, chairman of the committee, vowed to strike a deal before June 30 on a so-called "lights on" transportation bill that would fund at least basic transportation operations. The state's transportation budget also funds some public safety functions, including the Minnesota State Patrol.

"Shutting down the Department of Transportation and the State Patrol is completely unacceptable and it's not going to happen," said Murphy, DFL-Red Wing.

If the government shuts down, a basic level of critical services would continue to be performed. Michael Campion, director of the Department of Public Safety, said State Patrol officers would continue to patrol Minnesota highways.

But other, noticeable state operations would cease. A number of the highway project shutdowns, which are all over the state, would have major traffic impacts, according to MnDOT.

The new MnPASS toll system on I-394 would close for the duration, the state would stop tracking traffic information on Twin Cities freeways and electronic highway signs would stop transmitting information.

"I really feel that what happens over the course of the next weeks is going to dictate how the public views the Legislature for a long time, and how the public views the governor for a long time," Murphy said.

In fact, members of the Transportation Committee expressed frustration that talks to head off the shutdown are limited to the governor and a few legislative leaders.

"When my constituents ask me what's going on, I tell them I have to eat at the kiddie table," said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen. "I don't get to eat at the adult's table. I'd like to."

Over in the House, rank-and-file members upset by the slow pace of negotiations tried to force the Legislature to adjourn their special session until a deal is struck. They said they are tired of clocking in every three days, as the rules require, for floor meetings that last less than an hour.

"We're minor league players in this major league battle," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said the idea of having lawmakers take a break is tempting, but irresponsible.

"We just don't fold up our tent and go home when things aren't going right," he said.

In their radio appearance, Sviggum and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson batted around the idea of passing a budget bill for agriculture and environmental programs, so state parks would remain open past June 30. But there was no firm commitment to go that route.

Johnson, DFL-Willmar, raised the idea of upping Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed cigarette fee from 75 cents to $1 a pack. He said Democrats won't formally put it on the table, but could agree to it if Pawlenty did.

There were no high-level talks involving Sviggum, Johnson and Pawlenty. There probably won't be for the next couple of days, either, because Johnson was called away for military duty Tuesday and Wednesday. Johnson, a U.S. Army National Guard chaplain and brigadier general, will be in Dover, Del., to meet planes carrying fallen U.S. soldiers.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)