Six months ago, Rod Hamilton was center stage in the biggest drama at the State Capitol. And so was Hwy. 60, a crucial roadway splitting southern Minnesota that many believe is in need of expansion and improvements.
Today, the theatrics continue, with Hamilton in effect complaining that he was duped, and Hwy. 60 is no nearer to getting the attention he thinks it needs.
In February, Hamilton was one of six Republican legislators whose votes were needed to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a $6.6 billion transportation funding bill that ushered in Minnesota's first state gas tax hike in 20 years.
At the time Hamilton made things clear: If DFLers would provide funding for Hwy. 60, they would get his vote.
When Hamilton, a pork producer whose district relies heavily on the highway, cast his vote to override, the legislation contained 22 lines that appeared to instruct the Minnesota Department of Transportation to give Hwy. 60 a higher priority for funding.
But MnDOT now contends the language was never clear and is withholding any commitment to the Hwy. 60 project.
What's more, the key DFL legislator who sponsored the transportation bill said Hamilton misunderstood the language concerning Hwy. 60.
Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, who chairs the House Transportation committee, said there was never an intention to give the highway special status in return for Hamilton's vote.
Hamilton "kind of thinks we sold him a bill of goods," admitted Lieder. "I don't agree."
The dispute is the latest twist in what has been a bumpy political ride for Hamilton. Soon after he cast his override vote, he resigned from a Republican committee leadership position as he faced criticism from GOP colleagues.
'No ifs, ands or buts'
Hamilton scoffs at the idea that he misunderstood what he was being offered in exchange for his vote.
"There [are] no ifs, ands or buts," he said. "We understand what the intent was initially."
He added, "I'm not the one in a different universe. ... I'm clear on it."
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, who was critical of Republicans who joined the override vote, said the language was clearly inserted to address the needs of Hwy. 60 in return for Hamilton's vote.
"Hamilton was double-crossed by the Democrats," said Seifert, R-Marshall.
In southern Minnesota -- Hamilton lives in Mountain Lake -- the legislator is seen as the victim of a cynical political game. "Rod Hamilton has done absolutely everything he can. He went against his party lines" and lost his committee leadership job, said Hilary Mathis, a Windom resident who has garnered more than 3,000 signatures on a petition asking state officials to reconsider Hwy. 60.
Mathis' cousin was killed on Hwy. 60 three years ago while riding a motorcycle. "He was the closest thing to a brother I ever had," she said.
Others such as Wendy Meyer, the city administrator in Mountain Lake, said she has privately wondered whether Hamilton was the victim of political payback from those still angry that he went against his own party's governor.
"Initially, [MnDOT said] 'Well, we're not going to do this because it wasn't in the bill,'" she said. "Then there was an outcry, and Hamilton got involved, and then it shifted [and MnDOT said] 'We can't do this, we don't have any money.'"
Seifert rejected accusations that Republicans engaged in retribution. "Absolutely no way," he said. "I don't operate that way. The governor doesn't operate that way."
Two weeks ago, nearly 400 citizens attended a meeting in Windom to listen to MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel, who did not commit to elevating the highway's priority. Since the meeting, MnDOT has promised to have a definitive answer by Sept. 19 but contends that the agency's tight budget may be a determining factor.
"Our goal, in the end, is [to] work collaboratively with you," Sorel, who took over MnDOT's top job in April, told the crowd.
23 miles of bad road
For Hamilton and others, the key to his vote was the expansion of a mostly two-lane, 23-mile segment of Hwy. 60 between St. James and Windom. In a letter to Sorel in April, Hamilton and other legislators said that over seven years there had been three fatalities and 24 additional accidents on the segment between Mountain Lake and St. James.
But Jim Swanson, the MnDOT district engineer in southern Minnesota, said making the entire stretch into four lanes could cost as much as $85 million, a major financial challenge. Swanson said MnDOT has been "trying to clarify [the bill's legislative intent] ever since" the bill passed.
Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, who worked with Hamilton on Hwy. 60 and also signed the letter to Sorel, said there should be no confusion. The legislation's intent, he said, was that "Hwy. 60 would be completed."
Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman and another key player, is trying to mediate what has become a ticklish episode. Both Hamilton and Lieder had "valid points," he said, but "some pretty sharp pencils and ... some calming" will be needed to resolve the problem.
The transportation funding bill included a 22-line passage that directed MnDOT to "first expend funds as necessary" on road projects in southwestern Minnesota that met three criteria. At the time, MnDOT officials said four projects met the criteria, all of them segments of Hwy. 60, including the stretch between Windom and St. James. The wording was inserted just as Lieder pushed the bill before a key House committee, and MnDOT objected to the specific funding language.
Soon after the bill passed -- leading Pawlenty to castigate legislators -- Hamilton said he began hearing doubts about the bill's intent on Hwy. 60. "Honestly, I felt sheepish, like I had messed up," said Hamilton.
To try to clarify matters, Hamilton co-authored the April letter to Sorel. "Throughout the drafting of the 2008 transportation bill language it had been communicated to us that [Hwy. 60 through St. James] would be taken very seriously and moved to priority status," the letter stated.
Making matters confusing is that the letter was also signed by Lieder, who now maintains it was Hamilton -- and not MnDOT -- who misunderstood what would happen with Hwy. 60. "The big thing is MnDOT does not have the money," said Lieder. "We do not micro-manage which projects they do."
What happens next is unclear. Steve Nasby, the city administrator in Windom, said Hamilton and Vickerman received standing ovations at the community meeting, as Sorel looked on, and remain popular for their stance. And Hamilton, despite his vote in February, received the Republican endorsement for reelection.
Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388