Molnau's leadership questioned

ST. PAUL -- Carol Molnau watched as Gov. Tim Pawlenty went before reporters to publicly veto a large transportation spending bill. Molnau, the governor's appointed transportation commissioner, smiled approvingly as Pawlenty swiftly nixed a plan t...

ST. PAUL -- Carol Molnau watched as Gov. Tim Pawlenty went before reporters to publicly veto a large transportation spending bill.

Molnau, the governor's appointed transportation commissioner, smiled approvingly as Pawlenty swiftly nixed a plan that would have pumped billions of new tax dollars and borrowed money into the financially strapped agency she oversees.

Critics of Molnau, who also is the elected lieutenant governor, point to that 2005 episode as an earlier example of the commissioner's failed leadership at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"There was Molnau -- the commissioner -- standing there with a great big grin on her face [suggesting], 'We won. We kept them from giving us more money," recalled Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, a transportation leader in the Senate.

More recently, Democrats have compiled a litany of new complaints against her, particularly following the Aug. 1 Minneapolis bridge collapse. Some lawmakers and lobbyists are faulting her for standing idly by as her department faces a funding crunch and accusing her of withholding information from the public.


Molnau is facing her toughest opposition in five years as commissioner. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis, arguably the most powerful state lawmaker, reiterated a call by fellow Democrats for Molnau to resign before she is forced out.

"There are significant management issues going on," Kelliher said, blaming Molnau for not knowing more about her department's finances.

Molnau said she has no plans to resign and that her agency is facing "extraordinary" challenges following the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

"I think it's gotten very partisan and probably a bit mean," she said of the recent criticism, "and the fact of the matter is people do what people do and that's out of my control."

She added: "We need to make sure the interstate is made whole and Minnesota is as well, and I'm going to stay to do that."

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said he will put Molnau up for a confirmation vote shortly after the Legislature reconvenes Feb. 12. With Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers overwhelmingly controlling the Senate, Murphy said he has the votes to boot Molnau from office.

Pawlenty has publicly defended Molnau as Democrats have thrashed her performance as commissioner. Asked whether the DFL was piling on to him and Molnau, Pawlenty said, "The Legislature has an oversight role and responsibility."

"We are interested in working together with them," the governor continued. "When you have a state that goes through this kind of trauma and crisis, I think it is more important for leaders to step forward and use words and take actions that are constructive, oriented toward finding solutions, rather than bickering and finger pointing."


When Pawlenty took office in early 2003, he gave Molnau the full-time job of leading MnDOT, which may be the most visible among state departments. Its fundamental role is construction and maintenance of roads, bridges and highways across the state. Pawlenty kept her in the post after he was re-elected last year.

Recent Minnesota governors have appointed transportation commissioners from within the department and from outside state government. Some were trained as construction engineers, while others had little experience with the state's transportation system and instead were touted as experienced managers.

It is "an enormously demanding job," said Elwyn Tinklenberg, who served as former Gov. Jesse Ventura's transportation commissioner. A commissioner must have a handle on many complex transportation issues, be visionary and skilled at public relations, he and others have said.

"Everybody who's got a car is a traffic engineer, so there are strong opinions about what should be done and shouldn't be done," Tinklenberg said.

Molnau served five terms in the Minnesota Legislature before 2003 and led the House Transportation Finance Committee. Veteran lawmakers acknowledge she understood the complex transportation funding issues.

"When she was in the Legislature, she knew as much as anybody," Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, said of Molnau. "You've got to give her that credit, but that doesn't mean she's a good administrator."

Just as they plan to support her in a confirmation vote next year, Republican lawmakers have backed Molnau as criticism of her leadership at MnDOT has intensified. They say she is unfairly blamed for a shortfall of new funding at MnDOT.

"That's between the governor and the DFL legislators," Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna said of the funding dispute. "And she's the one who's blamed that we don't have enough money for anything when all she does is administrate the darn stuff. That's a real bad rap."


Observers say some of the criticism of Molnau may be warranted, but the debate over whether she should remain commissioner has drawn attention away from what the public really cares about: Minnesota's roads and bridges.

"I wish there was more time being spent on that," Tinklenberg said. "I think sometimes all of the controversy over Molnau is a substitute for dealing with the real issue, which is the state of our infrastructure."

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