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Lawmakers wheel, deal on road plan

ST. PAUL - The road to more transportation funding may be southwest Minnesota's Highway 60.

A small provision tucked into a big highway and transit funding package would benefit that rural stretch of highway - and it could sway at least one vote when the Minnesota House and Senate take up the $7.7 billion package today.

"It is part of discussion I have been having with the (transportation committee) chair and the speaker and others in order to get the No. 1 priority in our district," Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said Wednesday.

Democrats proposed the transportation package that includes gasoline, motor vehicle registration and sales tax increases.

Most Republicans say they oppose the bill, but several, including Hamilton, could support the bill today or next week when lawmakers may be asked to override an expected Gov. Tim Pawlenty veto.

"Democrats need my vote and I need Highway 60," Hamilton said.

Hamilton, a second term lawmaker, said he has not decided whether he will vote for today's bill, or the expected override. And he said he could vote against the bill today, but still vote to override a Pawlenty veto.

"This bill is changing minute by minute," Hamilton said. "I am going to reserve that decision until I have had a chance to read the bill in its entirety."

On Wednesday, House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, offered an alternative to the Democrats' spending plan.

Seifert said his proposal, which relied on borrowing funds and cutting money to human services programs, also generates $7.6 billion for transportation but does so without tax increases. The House rejected the plan.

"We're just on the side of the people at this point," Seifert said, adding polls show Minnesotans oppose tax increases.

Rep. Bernie Lieder, the Crookston DFLer who authored the Democrats' funding proposal, said Seifert's plan is not realistic.

"They don't show how they're going to pay for it," he said.

As today's floor vote neared, Seifert accused Democrats of threatening to pull Republicans' unrelated bills from consideration if they did not support the transportation package.

"It's a no-holds-barred lobbying effort," he said. "I don't think it will work."

Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, said the funding bill includes provisions that target specific lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

"(There's) nonsense in the bill yet that needs to be cleaned up," said Magnus, R-Slayton.

With Democrats holding a veto-proof majority in the Senate, the bill's approval and an override is more likely than in the House.

Still, Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, made sure the Minnesota 60 provision was included in the Senate version.

"I've been here 22 years and I got a little promise," Vickerman said with a smile.

A day before the vote, Democrats still did not have assurances all House DFLers would back the plan.

"I don't know what to do," admitted Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba.

The Long Prairie Democrat voted against a larger funding bill last year, and said she remains concerned about the impact a gas tax increase would have on her constituents.

"Nobody's really pushed me on this," she said. "It's my constituents that I'm worried about."

Hamilton said he initiated talk in the House about Minnesota 60.

"If you are looking for rural Minnesota to give something up, you better damn well give us something," he said.

Hamilton said he has "a tremendous amount of respect for my party's leaders," but he will not necessarily vote the party's line if it means Minnesota 60 does not get funding.

"I am polling people back home and talking to a number of folks," Hamilton said.

Hamilton said his vote mostly depends upon whether money is in the bill to renovate Minnesota 60, a diagonal highway that goes from the Iowa border south of Worthington northeast to Mankato.

While the Minnesota 60 issue trumps most other transportation-related items, Hamilton said he could vote against a highway bill with Minnesota 60 funds if there are other items he cannot stomach.

For instance, he opposed allowing the gasoline tax to automatically increase to keep up with inflation.

But since Democrats already removed that provision to attract Republican votes, that no longer is a concern.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.