Central Corridor’s future? Pawlenty’s cagey and DFLers are grim

The surprise line-item veto Gov. Tim Pawlenty gave to the Legislature’s $925 million bonding bill, striking $70 million for the Central Corridor LRT line, wasn’t much of a surprise at all: GOP lawmakers had been hinting for weeks that the transit funding would fall to the governor’s pen stroke.

“This is a project still facing serious challenges,” Pawlenty said Monday when he announced his cuts and subsequent signing of the bill, acknowledging that the move would draw attention, if not ire. “We want to pull this project into the maintenance shed for further inspection.”

But to hear some DFL lawmakers tell it, Pawlenty’s veto derailed the project altogether.

Although Pawlenty was cagey Monday about addressing the $70 million again this session, on Tuesday Democratic leaders, including U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, decried the cuts, sounding a grim note. Some county and municipal officials are holding out hope that something can be hashed out. And indeed Capitol insiders and observers were wondering Tuesday what trade-offs — some $298 million of surplus in the Health Care Access Fund to balance the budget or a balanced budget presented to Pawlenty by legislators themselves — could be offered to revive the light rail project.

But in truth, the general feeling is that the issue is dead.

“It’s a disaster for federal funding,” Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said Tuesday. Hornstein is chair of the House Transportation and Transit Policy Subcommittee and something of a transit wonk. “A vast majority of legislators would like to have this project. We can’t formulate a bill he’ll veto again. The governor is playing Russian Roulette.”

Playing politics with federal dollars

The core of the issue is this: The federal government has pledged some $460 million to the $909 million for the Central Corridor project. The state has until September to show that the project is on track, committing $270 million in state and local funds to the project by then, otherwise those federal dollars may be left on the table — and snatched up by some other transit-hungry metro area. The $70 million is seen by many as a key component in keeping the project running and securing money from the feds.

The governor and legislative DFLers may be playing a game of chicken, but Hornstein sounded sincerely grave Tuesday. “There’s no action unless the governor agrees to something,” he said. Lawmakers could draft a stand-alone, “supplemental” bill that deals with getting the money, but Hornstein said he sees no indication that the governor would sign it — and an override of the current veto or a new bill ain’t gonna happen.

“We’re stuck,” Hornstein said. “This is one more transportation mistake in a long line of transportation mistakes the governor has made.”

Pawlenty didn’t close the matter entirely, but he was non-committal at best Monday, offering the need for “another review of this project before we make a final commitment to it.”

Hornstein noted that Pawlenty originally backed the plan, and that on Monday he was intentionally misleading about some aspects of the Central Corridor, including the notion that the state would be responsible for the entire operating costs of the line.

Washington to the rescue?

Hornstein pointed to Pawlenty’s “long, multi-year hostility toward transit.” It’s true that the governor has been tight-fisted with Metro Transit over the years, and generally lukewarm about trains and buses. But it’s also true that all of this could have been avoided if the House and Senate had come up with a bonding bill that wasn’t $100 million over the governor’s preferred dollar amount. Lawmakers showed him up, and the governor returned the favor.

At this point, Pawlenty slashed through so much of the bonding bill, knocking it down to $717 million, that the money could be restored and still come in under Pawlenty’s budget. But it doesn’t appear that the governor is in a compromising mood. In fact, many are looking to U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, to save the project.

In other words, Washington might have to keep the Central Corridor alive, because it’s not likely to happen in St. Paul. (The only lawmaker to offer hope in the cavalcade of DFL leadership at Tuesday’s press conference was state Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who said: “At the Capitol, nothing is dead until it’s actually dead, and even then projects can get on life support. And I don’t think this project is dead.)

“[Pawlenty] said it and I have to take him at his word that this isn’t his priority,” Hornstein said. “We’re open to any conversation that would lead to the governor changing his mind.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 04/09/2008 - 12:46 pm.

    It’s time for “Let’s Make a Deal.”

    It will come down to Senator Langseth vs. Governor Pawlenty insofar as any supplemental bonding bills in the 11th hour of this session.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/09/2008 - 01:08 pm.

    The Democrat legislature is well known for it’s childish petulance, but they have really set their own hair on fire this time.

    The Governor laid out the rules well in advance, he wrote them out in large block letters: “Only take 700 million cookies”. The kiddies, as usual, decided to test the limits by emptying the jar and opening the spare pack to boot.

    So the Governor put their toy choo-choo up on the top shelf until the kids decided to listen to reason.

    All the little gluttons had to do was put some cookies back into the jar and they’d have gotten their little toy back. But instead of coming home to reason, the kids have tossed petulance to the winds and picked up with a full blown temper tantrum.

    If the choo-choo gets tossed into the trash this year, not only would it be appropriate, it would stave off a financial boondoggle for the taxpaying citizens for at least one more year.

    The Governor has the backing of the majority of Minnesota voters when he slapped the greedy DFL hands, and he has our backing to follow through with his decision to the end of this legislative session and beyond.

    Good work Governor.

  3. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 04/10/2008 - 08:30 am.

    Thomas Swift above looks to revising history to make the Governor look a lot better. Governor Pawlenty originally had a bonding bill of $965M, including $70M for the Central Corridor. Then when the budget shortfall was announced he lowered his threshold to $825M without ever indicating what $140M from his original proposal he would cut (that’s leadership for you).

    Never did T-Paw “in large block letters” say take only 700 million cookies. It doesn’t excuse the legislature for still coming in $100M over what the gov stated he wanted but at least let’s be factual.

  4. Submitted by Stephen Dent on 04/10/2008 - 10:55 am.

    I’m sorry but this just reinforces in my mind that Governor Pawlenty doesn’t understand the changing role of transit in our growing metropolitan area and it’s connection to air pollution and climate change; his specifically removing light rail from the budget also indicates that the “new green governor” just isn’t green.

    Is it any wonder Minnesotans are cynical about the integrity of their governor? Playing politics is one thing, playing politics with our future is quite another.

    Like Bush, ultimately, I believe future historians will look at Pawlenty poorly as well.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/10/2008 - 01:29 pm.

    Stephen, the Governor’s approval ratings do not support your assertion.

    In fact, from what I’ve read, the most consistent criticism the Governor receives is that he should have gone further.

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