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Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau was ousted from her job Thursday by DFLers in the Minnesota Senate, propelling a giant state agency battered by controversy in recent years into an uncertain future.
The Senate's 44-22 vote came along strict party lines, with all the votes to reject Molnau coming from DFLers while all Republicans voted to confirm.
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty immediately announced that he had appointed Bob McFarlin, Molnau's chief assistant, to be acting commissioner.
Molnau, who was expected to leave her department office immediately, still holds her elected position as lieutenant governor. But the vote ends her stormy career as head of the Transportation Department (MnDOT), which has been rocked by accusations of poor management, particularly after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in August. It is only the second time in Pawlenty's tenure that a commissioner has failed to be confirmed (the first being Cheri Pierson Yecke, former education chief).
The department must now find its way under a replacement for Molnau, who guided the agency for five years. Controversy over MnDOT predates her tenure but has risen steadily, chiefly over how to increase transportation funding, which many believe is falling behind the state's needs for congestion-relieving road expansion as well as repair and maintenance of roads and bridges.
In a statement, Molnau said that her service as transportation commissioner was "one of the best experiences of my life. It has been my honor and privilege to serve the citizens of Minnesota alongside the dedicated professionals in the department. I am proud of the agency's accomplishments in increasing infrastructure investment, improving efficiency and advancing innovation."
In a prepared statement, Pawlenty said that MnDOT, a massive agency with about 4,500 employees and an annual budget exceeding $2 billion, had completed more road and bridge projects in Molnau's five years as commissioner than in any other comparable period in the state's history.
"The DFL's decision to remove the lieutenant governor from her post at MnDOT is disappointing," Pawlenty's statement said. "It also shows they're more interested in partisanship than working together on the important issues facing our state."
But Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and an outspoken Molnau critic, said her failure to advocate for the department and cost overruns on several key projects necessitated her removal.
"Do we have the right person in the right place at the right time? I believe we do not," Murphy said during the Senate debate.
Replacement names abound
Amid the upheaval, MnDOT has received some positive financial news: the infusion into its coffers of large portions of the $6.6 billion transportation bill passed into law by the Legislature over Pawlenty's veto.
Just days before that enactment, Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles had issued an analysis of MnDOT's finances and performance that he characterized by saying "the picture going forward is clear, and it's not pretty."
The agency is building new roads at a faster pace while existing highways are crumbling, the report said. Before the new transportation bill, the report added that in coming years MnDOT would need to direct virtually all available money to the maintenance of existing roads and bridges.
Pawlenty said he has been anticipating the ouster of Molnau by the DFL Senate majority and has several potential replacements in mind. He told reporters at an unrelated news conference Thursday that a new leader would bring a new perspective. "So in that regard, it is a fresh start," he said.
Senate DFLers have their own short list of possible replacements and pledged a quick and smooth process of hearings, saying they hope the infusion of new leadership and dollars will steady the department's course.
"I'm hopeful that the person the governor puts forward next will be a real engineer and a true advocate for transportation," said Murphy.
Murphy offered suggestions about possible replacements for Molnau: long-time Metropolitan Council transportation planning director Natalio (Nacho) Diaz, now retired; and Bob Johns, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota. Murphy said several internal candidates also are promising.
Johns confirmed that he has been contacted by the governor's office and has been told he is a candidate for the position. He said he was first contacted in November by Pawlenty's office seeking suggestions for possible replacements for Molnau and was told his name would be on a list of candidates.
"It's a great honor to be even thought about," Johns said. "I've worked in transportation my whole career. It's been a wonderful position here at the university where I've been allowed to do a lot of innovative things. This could be a chance to be in a more direct role to help the state of Minnesota, which I feel very positive about."
Diaz is out of the country until April and was unavailable for comment.
Another name circulating in Capitol circles is Charlie Weaver, Pawlenty's former chief of staff and now head of the Minnesota Business Partnership. Weaver is also a long-time Pawlenty confidant.
Weaver said he has had talks about the position but would not say with whom.
"I am very happy where I'm at," he said.
The Senate debate over Molnau became emotional at times. At the outset, the sometimes fiery Murphy adopted a diplomatic tone, suggesting that Molnau needed to be removed because holding down the dual jobs of transportation commissioner and lieutenant governor had proved too much. He also said repeatedly he had never blamed Molnau for the bridge collapse.
Later, as the rhetoric on both sides escalated, Murphy became more blunt. After the vote he told reporters: "Carol Molnau has done an awful job as commissioner. Period."
Republicans described the confirmation vote as a political attempt to lay fault for the bridge collapse on Molnau and to blame her for decades of the Legislature's failure at properly funding transportation.
"Stop passing the buck," said Sen. Betsy Wergin, R-Princeton.
Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, called the ouster a "political execution."
Staff writers James Shiffer, Kevin Duchschere and Jim Foti contributed to this report.
Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636