Good, bad of Legislature’s special session

Mayor R.T. Rybak felt not enough attention was paid to transit issues.

Anna Ewart

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is concerned Minnesota isn’t doing enough to deal with transportation issues.

More than a month after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge and a few weeks after severe flooding in southeastern Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty called for a special session.

On Sept. 11, legislators from across the state gathered outside their regular session to address flood relief. Transit issues were not a major part of the agenda.

Jeremy Hanson, Rybak’s spokesman, said the mayor was disappointed the session was not used to address transportation more specifically.

“He hoped that the legislature and governor would use the special session to address the recent I-35W bridge collapse, as well as the larger lack of investment in transportation that the bridge symbolized,” he said.

The special session resulted in the creation of a $157 million bill, most of which is going toward flood-damage repairs in southeastern Minnesota, according to public information services for the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Of that money, $2 million will provide the state the ability to receive $53.2 million in federal aid for the I-35W bridge collapse. Obtaining the $53.2 million depends on a state funding match system.

Pawlenty’s spokesman Brian McClung said the governor and legislators considered having the special session deal with a variety of issues, including transportation.

Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelleher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller asked the governor to set aside transportation and other issues in order to focus the session on flood relief.

The governor agreed.

According to an ongoing correspondence between the governor and these two top Democrats, the process for deciding what to discuss at the special session was long and complicated.

After the collapse of the bridge, the focus was on transportation funding and relief. At the end of August, flood assistance became part of the agenda.

In the weeks that followed, the proposed legislation for the session shrank from six funding and policy goals to a single relief package for flooded southeastern Minnesota.

In parts of the correspondence, Pawlenty said he questioned whether the DFL majority’s intent was to pass a transportation bill vetoed earlier this year.

Pogemiller and Kelleher said they were concerned with the governor’s changing opinion about what should be covered in the session.

During this year’s normal legislative session, Pawlenty vetoed a bill that would have increased the gas tax by 5 cents and given counties permission to raise their sales tax by 0.5 percent for transportation needs. He vetoed a similar bill in 2005.

Pawlenty said these tax increases would cost the average Minnesota family up to $500 a year.

Now, according to McClung, the governor is willing to consider increasing the gas tax by up to 5 cents per gallon.

“His preference is that all or some of any gas tax increase be offset by an income tax reduction for lower- and moderate-income people, or that all or some of the gas tax increase be temporary,” McClung said.

But, it looks like a comprehensive transportation funding bill will have to wait until the next regular session.

First-year student Veronica Rosiejka hails from St. Charles, Minn. – a city hit by the flooding.

Rosiejka said she thought the flooding warranted its own special session.

“It’s a lot worse than people realize,” she said. “They need a lot of help.”