The effort to secure one of the six Republican votes that helped DFLers override Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a landmark transportation bill late last month -- the signature moment so far this legislative session -- is a story of promises and politics.
It centered on a second-term House member named Rod Hamilton, on a highway he had championed in southwestern Minnesota and on 22 lines of obscure language in the $6.6 billion transportation package.
When it was over, those 22 lines gave the highway special attention, and Hamilton gave DFLers one of the critical votes they needed to get the bill past a resistant governor. Five other House Republicans also supported the override, which in their chamber succeeded by one vote more than necessary.
Moments before he supported the bill's initial passage on Feb. 21, Hamilton said that no commitments were made concerning his vote and the highway. He declined requests last week for an interview.
The maneuvering began during the weekend of Feb. 17, just days before a series of crucial votes on the highway bill. Jim Swanson, a top state highway official stationed in Mankato, said he took phone calls at home from two DFL legislators. What was the status of renovating Hwy. 60 in southern Minnesota, he was asked, and how would he feel if wording was tucked into the legislation that would ensure it happened?
Swanson and others at the Minnesota Department of Transportation say they did not like the specific funding language. Swanson said it violated the usual policy against designating funding for specific projects in legislation.
Republican legislators saw something more: a not-so-subtle attempt to dangle special transportation funding in front of a key Republican legislator in an attempt to get his vote.
A 'technical amendment'
The lawmaker who critics believe was being wooed with the efforts to fund Hwy. 60 was Hamilton, a pork producer from Mountain Lake. The town of 2,000 is astride the highway in rural Cottonwood County.
On Feb. 19, six days before the House override vote, Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, and the chief House author of the transportation bill, sat before a House committee with what he described as "pretty much a technical amendment."
Lieder was one of the legislators who had called Swanson a few days before to talk about Hwy. 60. The other was Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter.
Swanson said he felt the DFLers were "trying to come up with a way to say things that didn't name a specific highway" but in the end funneled money to a specific highway. The key language in Lieder's amendment directed officials in MnDOT's District 7 -- where Hwy. 60 is located -- to "first expend funds as necessary to accelerate all projects" that met three criteria: First, the project had to be on a medium-priority interregional corridor; second, it had to be in the district's long-range plan but not in the state's overall improvement plan or the 10-year work plan, and third, it had to be a project that called for expanding a two-lane highway to a freeway.
Furthermore, any project meeting the three criteria would be moved to the front of the line if it also had an environmental impact statement completed.
MnDOT officials said four projects in District 7 clearly met the criteria -- all of them segments of Hwy. 60. A fifth, an interchange involving Hwy. 14 near Mankato, might also fit the criteria, they said.
Erik Rudeen, a MnDOT lobbyist, said he learned of Lieder's amendment only on the day Lieder first unveiled it before the committee. "We object to this language," he said later. "We're going to have to do these projects ahead of ... what the department would view as more important projects."
But leaving it to MnDOT professionals to set priorities, Rudeen said, "doesn't get you votes for a transportation bill."
Republicans also voiced criticism. "It's unprecedented," said Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, who criticized Lieder's amendment as he outlined it in committee. "It's buying a vote. I don't care what anybody says."
Holberg called the maneuver an "earmark" -- setting aside money in legislation for a specific project -- and said Lieder had violated his own stated policy of refusing to insert such special language into bills.
"I definitely don't like earmarks, that's correct," Lieder said. "This is kind of a general, if you want to call it, I suppose, a general earmark." But because Hwy. 60 was never specifically named in the legislation, Lieder said, it was not technically an earmark.
Of the $1.7 billion set aside in the legislation for state road construction, the language was the only point at which money was targeted specifically for one of MnDOT's seven outstate districts.
Profile in courage or sellout?
Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College, said legislative bargains like the one that may have involved Hamilton are not rare and should not necessarily be harshly judged. Critics look at what happened and think "someone sells their soul," while supporters believe "it's a profile in courage for the good of the nation," he said. "Probably most of those votes are somewhere in the middle."
For much of southern Minnesota, Hwy. 60 has long been a priority. The roadway, which snakes up from the Iowa border to Mankato, is a series of alternating two-lane and four-lane stretches that highway officials and motorists consider outdated and dangerous.
As reporters crowded around him on Feb. 21, the day the House passed the transportation bill, Hamilton was vague about what had happened. "Seems to be accurate, doesn't it?" he said in response to questions about whether language had been inserted into the bill to help fund Hwy. 60. Asked what he had told DFLers who wanted his vote, he said, "There's no commitment either way."
Hamilton, however, was less ambiguous in an interview with the Worthington Daily Globe published Feb. 20, the day before the vote.
"Democrats need my vote, and I need Hwy. 60," he said. "It is part of discussion I have been having with the [Transportation Committee] chair and the speaker and others in order to get the No. 1 priority in our district."
Although Hamilton's vote for the bill drew the ire of Republicans, who retaliated by stripping him of his leadership role on the Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Committee, he was lauded by voters who sent letters to the editor to the Daily Globe.
DFL legislators, including Lieder and Morrow, said that what transpired was not backroom dealing and that the language was inserted simply to make sure the legislation ensured the existing priority list for road projects was intact.
"We weren't in the business of buying votes. There were a lot of allegations of that," said House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm.
But Lieder said simple math was part of the equation -- 90 votes were needed to override Pawlenty, he said.
"Anything is an incentive for anybody to vote for the bill," he said. "You try to get it in there."
Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388