In 1973, Time Magazine put Minnesota's governor on the cover, showing off a northern pike above the words "The Good Life in Minnesota." The story's headline was, "A State That Works."
Today, that headline would stink as much as the fish.
Next September, Minnesota will be in the spotlight again, for the Republican National Convention. If we're not lucky, the headlines may be about "A State That Is Falling Down."
We're in a state of disgrace.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is in free fall, failing to perform some of government's most basic duties and failing the citizens who pay for, and expect, roads and bridges that are well-designed, well-maintained, and safe and sound.
We have too little of that.
Instead, we have a politician running one of the most important state agencies and who, incredibly, still has her job nine weeks after an Interstate bridge fell into a river.
Her name is Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, and the only reason why her boss, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, hasn't replaced her with a professional and sent her on an urgent inspection tour of the beet-harvesting operations in Norman County is that he hopes the Democrats will get rid of her when the Legislature reconvenes in February. They will: Molnau has not been confirmed in her reappointment to a job she has botched badly and Democrats who control the Legislature say they aren't playing patty-fingers with Pawlenty anymore.
They will send Molnau packing, and Pawlenty will say they are playing politics.
That's rich. It was Pawlenty who played politics when he named his running mate to run MnDOT. Tossing her overboard now isn't about politics. It might save the department.
Already billions behind in maintenance and construction work (even her headquarters is falling down), Molnau now says the cost of replacing the I-35W bridge has soared to almost $400 million, and she wants the Legislature to find the money by borrowing it from other necessary projects.
If she had a good track record, it might be worth the risk. But her tracks end at river gorges. Let's take a look at a brief list of MnDOT troubles:
The Wakota Bridge replacement over the Mississippi at South St. Paul is years behind and millions over budget.
The Crosstown Highway project was delayed after the state asked contractors to finance the work and take payment later. Try that next time you remodel a bathroom.
MnDOT is millions in debt to local governments and has turned the $200 million operating surplus it had when Molnau came into office into what may soon be a $75 million deficit while, at the same time, leaving $1 billion to $2 billion in annual construction work undone.
What does it mean to you? Here's one example of how the rubber hits the potholes:
Sen. Steve Murphy, a DFLer from Red Wing who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, says 80 percent of state highways in southeastern Minnesota need rebuilding. Not one has funding.
How much proof is needed?
"They're flat broke," says Murphy, who says he will ax Molnau if Pawlenty doesn't do it first. "Molnau is not doing her job. How much proof do we need?"
The bottom line is that Tim Pawlenty and his commissioner of DeTransportation came to office with an agenda of shrinking government and spinning off pieces to the private sector, following an ideological plan to shift tax dollars from state agencies to private suppliers, from education to health care to highways.
It was fun until a major bridge that the state did not inspect, maintain or repair adequately fell, and people died driving home to supper.
Molnau was beaming last spring as Pawlenty vetoed a bill that would have increased transportation funding.
That leaves us two questions in the State That Used to Work: 1) What was so funny? And, 2) Why is she still here?
Nick Coleman firstname.lastname@example.org