Fed money helps road work
ST. PAUL - In the next few days, Minnesotans will see federal economic stimulus funds in the form of orange barrels.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has scheduled the start of many federally funded highway projects in the next week.
"MnDOT identified more than 60 projects and requested bids on enough to meet the federal requirements in about half the time required," Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel said. "Minnesota is one of the first states to reach that obligation threshold, which makes us eligible for potentially more funding."
About half of the $502 million in federal stimulus funding has been obligated, Sorel said.
The first federally funded project already started. Crews are applying anti-skid treatments in U.S. 61 tunnels near Two Harbors.
Other projects due to start soon include a U.S. 10 overlay project between Staples and Wadena and a Minnesota 7 overlay between Montevideo and Clara City.
The federal stimulus projects are in addition to regular summer construction work.
"This is one of the largest construction years in the state's history," Sorel said. "All of us who are traveling on state roadways need to approach work zones with caution and be patient."
Minnesota legislators hope they are headed toward a smooth end to their 2009 session.
But don't bet the farm on it.
House-Senate conference committees - those panels that write compromise legislation - are sending several budget bills for full House and Senate votes on Monday. But as they began work late in the week, there were signs of problems with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget proposals and Pawlenty himself.
Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, was especially harsh, saying Pawlenty is just plain wrong in saying senators voted to give the State Patrol less money than he wanted. Murphy, the Senate transportation committee chairman, launched his conference committee with the attack Friday morning.
While conference committees dealing with relatively small amounts of money had a Saturday deadline to wrap up, the big-buck committees have until Thursday.
The next major deadline is to send all money bills to Pawlenty by May 12, with lawmakers facing a May 18 constitutional deadline to adjourn.
However, many lawmakers and legislative staff members expect legislators and Pawlenty to fail to pass their $33 billion, two-year budget by the deadline, prompting the need for a special summer session.
More soybean oil is being burned in Minnesota today.
A new law kicked in on Friday requiring most diesel fuel sold in the state to include a 5 percent biodiesel blend, the most in the country. Most Minnesota biodiesel is made from soybean oil.
Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson said he expects no problems because the state has required a 2 percent biodiesel blend for four years.
"We know from experience that the fuel helps our air quality, our farm economy, and our effort to achieve greater energy independence," the commissioner said.
However, there is opposition from some quarters, amid claims of problems in cold months.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller certainly are not BFF ("best friends forever" in electronic texting parlance).
During a meeting, Pogemiller grilled Pawlenty's chief financial aide about what many Democrats feel is a misleading budget document the GOP governor gave to reporters. That document showed that the governor made deeper budget cuts than did the Senate.
Pogemiller said the Senate budget cuts more money than would Pawlenty. If the governor tries to create "his own set of facts ... that destroys a democracy," Pogemiller said, changing his tone that earlier this year was one of avoiding confrontational comments about Pawlenty.
In an interview, Pogemiller said that even though he does not agree with Pawlenty, that will not hurt session-ending negotiations: "This is business. I don't need to trust the governor to do the job."
All about timing
Rep. Tim Kelly picked an interesting day to have his parents sit in on Minnesota House proceedings.
Following an ugly House floor fight over the amount of time allowed for a transportation debate, Kelly told his colleagues that his parents were visiting the Capitol and were seated in the chamber.
The Red Wing Republican joked that they observed an "awesome display of political process."
"I was a little nervous" about the dispute, Kelly said, "but in the end I'm proud of the way we came through this."
Kelly's father and mother then stood and were recognized by the House.
It is common for lawmakers to acknowledge visiting relatives and guests during floor sessions.
Chamber: 'Gravely concerned'
The Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce does not like Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal to cut health-care provider funding $764 million in the next two years.
"While the chamber's leadership understands the need to reduce the state's expenditures, we are, nevertheless, gravely concerned with the detrimental impact your proposed funding cuts would have on our local health care providers and our local economy," chamber President David Ross wrote to Pawlenty.
The letter is notable because Pawlenty normally is a Chamber of Commerce favorite, with chambers around the state being his most-visited organizations.
Ross said the Duluth group is upset with the Pawlenty plan because the industry is the area's largest economic engine and largest employer.
"This combined $38.2 million reduction in revenue would result in the elimination of jobs and health care services offered within our beloved community," Ross wrote. "In addition, our local health care providers would be forced to pass along costs to those with insurance, since it appears mandates to offer health care for those without insurance would still be in place."
State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this report.