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Pawlenty touts transportation

WORTHINGTON -- If Gov. Tim Pawlenty has his way -- and if voters agree in November -- the long-delayed Minnesota 60 project southwest Minnesota has anticipated for decades will finally see completion.

The Republican governor was in Worthington Wednesday afternoon to call for a constitutional amendment designed to kick-start overdue transportation projects across the state. The Minnesota 60 project is one of 21 major projects (17 in outstate Minnesota and four in the metro area) designated for acceleration. All have been delayed or underfunded for years.

Pawlenty said he will ask the Legislature to agree to $2.5 billion in state borrowing over 10 years dependent upon passage of a constitutional amendment. The amendment, to be placed on the general election ballot in November, would permanently dedicate 100 percent of revenue generated from the motor vehicles sales tax (MVST) to highway and transit needs. Only 54 percent of MVST revenues are currently earmarked for highways and transit.

"This is a good business decision to do it this way. Most other states use this approach, and Minnesota can use it, too," Pawlenty said.

When fully implemented, the new revenue is expected to rake in approximately $110 million annually.

"I can't imagine anyone opposing this amendment," Pawlenty said while speaking at the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce. "It doesn't raise taxes. It uses money already available in the budget. I haven't run into anyone, upon hearing about the amendment, say they're ready to oppose it. ... It's basically economic growth that we're capturing and using for this purpose."

Amendment supporters are already lining up. A coalition of business groups, labor unions and road contractors announced Wednesday a plan to spend as much as $4 million on the campaign.

But as quickly as supporters are coalescing, critics are taking aim. Pawlenty's proposal was panned Wednesday by Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, and House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul. The governor neglected to indicate how bonds would be paid off if the amendment fails, they said in a statement.

As Pawlenty trumpeted his administration's 2003 proposal for what he called "the largest transportation funding package in state history," Johnson criticized the governor for vetoing a House and Senate transportation bill last year that would have inserted $7.3 billion into road and transit projects over 10 years. He also recalled a Jan. 20 decision by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to shift $100 million from rural Minnesota projects to metro projects to help offset the agency's budget shortfall -- an announcement that angered many outstate legislators.

"Robbing $100 million from Greater Minnesota and giving it to the metro-area projects is simply unfair. Taking that money just highlights the failure of the policies of this administration," Johnson said.

Entenza said Pawlenty's new plan would force the next generation to pay for transportation needs today. "Leadership is a quality that people want in their governor," he said. "Tough decisions in tough times are what leadership is about. His lack of leadership means our roads are unsafe, people are stuck in traffic away from their families, and our children will be saddled with debt."

Before voters can pass judgement on the constitutional amendment, there were indications Wednesday that the amendment's language might undergo a revision. Some rural lawmakers are unhappy that the 40-60 wording -- setting aside at least 40 percent of money to transit projects and leaving 60 percent for roads -- leaves the dedication of funds dangerously open to interpretation. Jim Swanson, District 7 Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) District Engineer, said Wednesday that several lawmakers recommend firming up the language to remove doubt.

Swanson also said that the Minnesota 60 bypass at Bigelow will begin in 2007 regardless of whether the November amendment passes. If it does pass, however, work on the remainder of Minnesota 60 improvements -- extending to Worthington -- will begin in 2010.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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