DFLers who control the state Senate are planning a vote as early as today to oust Carol Molnau as the state transportation commissioner, according to Senate leaders.
Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said he was told by Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller that the vote would occur today.
In an interview Wednesday, Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, wouldn't say when the vote would take place, but he said the votes are there to deny Molnau confirmation in the transportation commissioner post. He said discussions were continuing on when to hold the vote and how to do it "in a dignified manner."
Molnau declined to comment Wednesday evening but has consistently maintained she would not resign as transportation commissioner.
"My plan is to stay here and do what I need to do," she told the Star Tribune last month.
Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, said Wednesday that "we will be informing Senator Pogemiller that the governor's view is unchanged."
Molnau has "indicated repeatedly that she will not be resigning," McClung said. "The Senate has the authority to confirm or not confirm her as commissioner," he added, "and that decision has been in their hands for more than five years."
DFLers have long threatened to reject Molnau's confirmation, complaining that she has not been an effective manager or advocate for her department. Their criticisms intensified after the I-35W bridge collapse last August.
It would take a simple majority in the Senate either to confirm or remove Molnau, who also is the state's lieutenant governor. Her occupancy of that elected office would not be affected by a vote.
Denials of confirmation for commissioners are not common, but the Senate rejected Pawlenty's first education commissioner, Cheri Yecke, in 2004. Molnau was confirmed that year after first losing a committee vote. She is subject to a new vote in Pawlenty's second term. Commissioners may serve without confirmation, but must leave office if rejected by the Senate.
Senjem said of the majority, "I don't think they are going to enter into the debate a lot. I think they are doing it on a day when the news is going to be dominated by the budget and so this issue will be somewhat secondary. We're prepared here for tomorrow. You don't have to plan real far ahead to do this."
McClung said in an e-mail that "as a contingency plan, our office has had some discussions about possible [replacements for Molnau] in the event that Senate DFLers remove the Lt. Governor from her position as commissioner."
Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, participated in a meeting of DFL senators on Wednesday discussing strategy for ousting Molnau.
He said the sentiment of most of those at the meeting was to take the vote today.
"There was nothing for sure, but you kind of got the feeling of ... do it now or should we wait a couple, three weeks. And there seemed to be more sentiment to do it early."
Langseth said there was talk about Pogemiller having "some communication ... with the governor first, sort of wondering if he wanted an easy out and just have her resign."
"I said I prefer tomorrow [Thursday] rather than next week," Langseth said.
He said there was a show of hands, and while no definite decision to vote today emerged, "I would guess that will be the result."
Senjem predicted the 22 Senate Republicans would stand firm in support of Molnau. Anticipating such a vote, Senjem invited Molnau to address the Senate GOP caucus recently.
"I wanted to do that before this day happened and give her a private sense of appreciation. I think everybody is going to be OK in terms of supporting her," Senjem said.
Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said Wednesday he was waiting to hear whether the Senate would take up Molnau's confirmation. Murphy said he's been ready for weeks to take a vote on Molnau, but said he's been told that other issues may take precedence.
'Bigger fish to fry'
"We don't want this upsetting the apple cart for the rest of the session," Murphy said. "There's bigger fish to fry right now. Let's face it, bonding is more important, fixing the budget is more important."
Murphy said there may be nothing Pawlenty can do to avert a confirmation vote that would end Molnau's term as transportation commissioner, "but there's a lot he can do to make things more difficult for the rest of the session."
Sometimes, Murphy said, "the needs of the state take priority. I feel that getting Molnau out of there is for the good of the state, but I don't know yet if that's going to happen tomorrow."
Murphy said that he is certain the votes are there to essentially fire Molnau from her commissioner post. Once the Senate took that vote, the results would be fairly immediate. "As soon as the governor receives the message, she'll be relieved of her duties," Murphy said.
That could trigger other major administrative changes at the beleaguered department, since the top-ranking managers beneath Molnau are political appointees. "Whoever was appointed next would want to determine their own management team," Murphy said, "so I imagine you'd see additional changes."
Molnau was appointed transportation commissioner in 2003. A commissioner serves at the governor's will but can be removed if the Senate votes not to confirm.
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