For state Sen. Steve Murphy to accuse Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau and Deputy Commissioner Bob McFarlin of shifting blame (Counterpoint, Nov. 28) is laughable. Murphy's repeated demands for Molnau's resignation and his feigned outrage over supposed incompetence are nothing more than attempts to deflect questions about his own poor leadership of the Senate Transportation Committee.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation can't spend money that the Legislature doesn't give it. As Transportation Committee chairman, Murphy wrote a bill with an assortment of new taxes and fees that would have cost Minnesota families more than $400 a year. That bloated plan was vetoed, so he took his ball and went home. He never once considered a compromise -- and a compromise was eminently possible, if Murphy had a sincere interest in solving the problem.
One result of Murphy's failure of leadership in past years was that we had to go directly to the voters and ask them to constitutionally dedicate motor vehicle sales tax money to roads and transit. Minnesotans said yes, but then Murphy rejected a plan to leverage those new funds for $1.7 billion in bonding for highway construction.
Now he has another chance to prove he cares about our transportation needs by permitting MnDOT to spend the money the federal government has made available. But, no. Murphy said he can't trust MnDOT to spend the money responsibly. He is jeopardizing important projects all across the state, including Hwy. 14, a critical regional corridor in my Senate district, and is unnecessarily making a lot of folks nervous.
So now what do we do? Well, we've got an alternative. Minnesota's U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar -- whose name never appears in print unless it is accompanied by "the powerful chairman of the House Transportation Committee" -- advised us to raise the state gas tax. Oberstar promised to go back to Washington and pass a 5-cent federal gas tax, but we know now that's not going to happen. Congress has been unwilling to raise the federal gas tax in 15 years because congressmen know that it is highly unpopular with voters. A tax increase might cost them their jobs.
Murphy has held news conference after news conference about the Interstate 35W bridge. It's good theater, I suppose, but his public comments have been extremely reckless. He claims the National Transportation Safety Board can't be trusted to conduct an objective investigation because it is protecting the governor. He believes U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters is covering up the real cause of the bridge collapse. He thinks our own Department of Administration was biased in its review of the design-build contracts.
If you look at a pie chart of the state general fund budget, you will see that funds allocated to transportation are only a tiny sliver. Most of the money comes, instead, from the gas tax and tab fees. However, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made transportation a priority: Last year we spent the most money ever on road construction; the year before that, the second-most money, and the year before that, the third-most. We would all like to spend more, but we certainly haven't been idling.
This is far from the first time Minnesota has had a DFL Legislature and a Republican governor, and over the years we have managed to work together. I suggest we stop the grandstanding, threats and fearmongering and get serious about a solution.
Dick Day, R-Owatonna, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.