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Audit from heaven: Report gives DFLers fuel they need for transportation bill

Any other time, only wonks would have paid attention to the “evaluation report” from the state of Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor on “state highways and bridges” — but of course, the I-35W bridge collapse has changed all that.

Any other time, only wonks would have paid attention to the “evaluation report” from the state of Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor on “state highways and bridges” — but of course, the I-35W bridge collapse has changed all that. Rare are the times when an assessment of state infrastructure would be given the rock-star treatment.

But fanfare of sorts greeted the report, especially in a media conference held by Democratic legislative leadership after its release. The DFLers assembled — including House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Senate Transportation chair Steve Murphy, Senate Assistant Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, House Transportation and Transit chair Frank Hornstein, and state Rep. Bernie Lieder, a longtime transportation advocate — could barely conceal their glee. Restrained smiles on their faces seemed to say, “See, governor, we told you so.”

Each legislative body is moving quickly on a massive transportation bill, one that been decried by the no-new-tax brigade among the Republicans and largely shrugged off by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who many believe will veto the bill. The looming question this session is whether the Democrats, with strong majorities in both the House and Senate, can get enough Republicans on board to override what the governor referred to in his State of the State address last week as “the taxpayer protection pen.”

“This report adds momentum to those two bills,” Speaker Kelliher said. “Week two and it seems like we’re moving quick, but let’s not forget it’s been 20 years since a major transportation package passed into law.”

That, not coincidentally, was the last time lawmakers raised the gas tax, which is really the sticky wicket this time out as well. Given that the public is split on a gas tax, and Pawlenty is resolutely against it, Team DFL treaded lightly on the governor Tuesday, perhaps a nod to the precariousness of the situation.

In fact, Kelliher said at one point, “The governor does seem to be in a box, and we’re trying to help him out.”

A damning report? Depends
Conciliatory rhetoric aside, lawmakers could let the OLA speak for itself, without going after Pawlenty. The report itself, (PDF) signed off on by legislative auditor Jim Nobles, is some 120 pages. Luckily, it came with a four-page summary, (PDF) which a couple lawmakers admitted they used as a cheat sheet. (This reporter, too, has yet to slog through the entire thing; stay tuned.)

The OLA is firmly nonpartisan, and folks around the Capitol cautioned against politicizing the report and strained to separate it from the blame game surrounding the bridge collapse. “We have no basis to dispute the grim picture of the data present,” Nobles wrote in an introduction, pointing out that the “data” was culled from MnDOT.

The summary intones some serious concerns: “When adjusted for inflation, tax revenues directed to the State Trunk Highway Fund have decreased since 2003, and MnDOT staffing has declined as well” … “overall condition of trunk highway pavements has deteriorated” … and “MnDOT does not adequately document its follow-up on inspectors’ maintenance recommendations.”

In one silver-lining point, the summary says that since 2002, “the structural condition of bridges has improved.”

However: “MnDOT’s district offices say they have enough certified bridge inspectors, but MnDOT needs additional resources to inspect fracture critical bridges,” and “MnDOT districts told us they are completing high-priority bridge repairs, but said they are falling behind on routine maintenance.”

Kinder, gentler, but fightin’ words nonetheless
The summary and report further note financial shortfalls and generally unsound spending and accounting practices. It’s hard not to notice that the timeframe noted is the No-New-Tax era of the Pawlenty years.

Still, DFL leaders want this bill bad, and the auditor’s word will do the work that their words won’t. To attack Pawlenty now would unnecessarily roil bad blood.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some fightin’ words. Kelliher indicated that the bills needed to get done now, and not be held hostage by next week’s sure-to-be bleak budget forecast.

She also said she had turned down a number of pet requests her fellow lawmakers wanted in the bill and chided Republicans for the way they lobbied their own folks against the bill last session, turning many gas-tax advocates in the party away from an override of the governor’s veto last time around.

But the fact is, DFLers may now have the magic bullet to get their transportation and transit wishes. “We had to rely on OLA going after this,” Kelliher said, alluding to lack of cooperation from MnDOT and Pawlenty. “We’ve been running this thing on baling twine and bubble gum.”