By Lora Pabst
The already short road construction season in Minnesota could be missed entirely if the state shutdown continues much longer, two Republican legislators told Ramsey County Chief District Judge Kathleen Gearin Wednesday.
Transportation committee chairs Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, and Rep.Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, asked Gearin to rule that ongoing highway construction projects are a core function of government, which could allow more than $100 million to flow to 98 ongoing projects. They argued that road construction is similar to public education because they are mandated by the state Constitution.
“We need to abide by the Constitution.” Gimse said. “What we read clearly is we shall construct, improve and maintain highways.”
Gearin, who has been in charge of most shutdown litigation, appeared to indicate she didn't find that so clear.
Gearin noted that her earlier order on critical and core functions of government allowed for emergency repairs and upkeep on highways and she was not inclined to change that decision.
When Beard said he thought appointed special master, former State Supreme Court Justice Kathleen Blatz, could call some MnDOT employees back to work, Gearin responded “I can assure you she didn’t sign up to be the commissioner of transportation.”
“It sounds like you want Justice Blatz and I to be super activist judges,” Gearin said.
David Lillehaug, the attorney who represents Gov. Mark Dayton, said in a court filing that Dayton opposes Gimse and Beard’s “extraordinary request.” He also said that the money for construction projects isn’t a standing appropriation and since no appropriation has been signed into law, MnDOT had to suspend the projects.
“The issue of what projects must or must not be funded, in the governor’s view, is the function of the Legislature,” Lillehaug said.
Lillehaug wrote in his filing that MnDOT would have to call back 840 employees in order to continue with the summer construction season.
“We would urge the court not to become a super Legislature and not to become a super commissioner of transportation,” Lillehaug said.
Dean Thomson, an attorney for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, tried another approach when he asked Gearin to issue a decision saying that the governor has the ability to allow some projects to move forward.
Gearin, who took both requests under advisement, said while she knows that state and private workers are the ones suffering, “there’s a simple solution much faster than the courts.”