Federal, state legislators get funds for bridge, floods

by Liz Riggs

While legislators worked at the state capitol Tuesday night to put together a flood relief bill, U.S. Senators spent the beginning of the week at the nation’s capitol securing federal funding for replacement of the Interstate 35W bridge.

This week, both state and federal legislators formally approved funding for aid and rebuilding costs associated with Minnesota’s two August disasters – the I-35W bridge collapse and extensive flooding in the southeastern corner of the state.

Legislators from across Minnesota were called into the capitol Tuesday for a one-day special session devoted to flood aid. Although the session began at 5 p.m. Tuesday, the disaster relief bill was not signed into law until early Wednesday morning.

“I’m awfully glad we got it done,” a sleep-deprived Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said the following evening. Pogemiller represents Senate District 59, of which the University’s Minneapolis campus is a part.

While he might have helped pass the disaster relief package, Pogemiller expressed dissatisfaction that the state budget surplus wasn’t tapped to fund the aid package.

“I’m disappointed that we used bonding instead of cash,” he said. “I don’t think that was the most financially prudent (idea).”

The $157 million bill lawmakers passed early Wednesday is the “largest disaster relief package in the history of the state,” said Brian McClung, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s spokesman.

“The governor was glad that legislators kept to their commitment to stay focused on just the flood relief package and make sure that that was taken care of appropriately and quickly,” McClung said.

Before Pawlenty announced Monday that he was calling lawmakers back together mid-recess, it was unclear whether there would even be a special session. In previous weeks there had been considerable disagreement between Pawlenty and DFLers Pogemiller and House Speaker Margaret Kelliher about what would be on the agenda if there were a special session.

Only the governor can call a special session.

Both sides had hoped to come to an agreement on funding a major transportation package in wake of last month’s bridge collapse, but were unable to make any headway.

“The frustrating thing about the special session was the governor and the governor’s attitude,” said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis. Kahn represents House District 59B, which also covers the University’s Minneapolis campus.

Kahn said after the bridge collapse, Pawlenty sounded “reasonable” when he said he would reconsider the idea of raising the state gas tax to fund improvements of transportation infrastructure – something he has vetoed in the past.

But the governor went back on his word when he started “putting a lot of conditions” on the table, Kahn said.

On the evening of the special session, Kahn sported a T-shirt with a cartoon drawing of the collapsed I-35W bridge that prominently featured the slogan, “No New Taxes” – an apparent jab at the governor’s refusal to raise taxes, even, as Kahn contended, at the expense of our infrastructure.

“Government is supported by taxes,” Kahn said. “Starving it doesn’t work.” She also said the shirt, which is sold at a local co-op, was given to her by a constituent.

Pogemiller said he, too, was frustrated by what he views as a “lost opportunity to do something very significant” about transportation funding, but was glad there was progress in terms of a flood relief package.

“I think (that) was our basic duty,” Pogemiller said. “It would have been extremely unfortunate (if a special session had not been called to address flood relief).”

And in Washington Ö

On the national level, Minnesota Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar secured passage of an amendment to a transportation appropriations bill that contributes $195 million to the rebuilding of the I-35W bridge.

Just days after the bridge fell, Congress authorized $250 million for costs stemming from the collapse.

Already, $55 million of the $250 million total has been released to state agencies to pay for recovery and cleanup efforts.