With the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s career took a big hit. Pawlenty, currently chair of the National Governors Association, has built a career on a no-tax-increase pledge, and he’s risen in the ranks of national Republicans because of it. Among other feathers in his cap, he twice vetoed a gas-tax increase that would have provided money to the Department of Transportation, whose purview includes bridge inspection and repair.
Minnesota Republicans have insisted that–even though the bridge was deemed “structurally deficient” and severe corrosion and cracking had been noted almost ten years ago–there is no culpability here. Pawlenty so far has managed to keep the critics at bay. It fell to Carol Molnau, head of Minnesota’s Department of Transportation, to confront the outrage directly, with an impassioned defense of her agency during a press conference. “The dollars go into safety first,” she said. There was “no neglect and no malice.”
In fact, no one is alleging malice. But institutionalized neglect is what brought Molnau, Pawlenty and the entire post-Reagan Republican onslaught to power and kept it there for most of three decades. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.
“Infrastructure” became a buzzword in the early 1980s. Infrastructure renewal was seen as essential for “reindustrialization,” which would be required in order to compete with a perceived trade threat from Japan. A 1981 study titled “America in Ruins,” commissioned by the Council of State Planning Agencies, caused a stir in the national media when it observed that 20 percent of US bridges needed major work or replacement. Imagine! (Today an even larger percentage is considered “obsolete” or “structurally deficient.”)
There was a lot of talk about metal fatigue and corroding pipes and worn-out dams, just as there is now. Then the Reagan tax cuts kicked in. The political climate changed, and soon another concept embraced by the ascendant right wing–“devolution,” a foisting of major public functions to the local level but usually without the money to carry them out–put the nail in the coffin of infrastructure renewal. The corrosive doctrine of self-interest became the dominant theme of politics, infecting government at every level. Even where liberals prevailed they had to pay it homage. Careers were made, think tanks were funded and individual politicians and decision-makers, like it or not, found themselves working in a milieu in which everything public was being allowed to rot. Not many years later an executive/financier class was pulling in more money in a few minutes than their employees made in a month, yet the party that represented them was continuing to win elections by arguing that taxes were too high. Infrastructure renewal had taken a back seat to the need for people to “keep their own money.”
The infection was systemic. Whether or not the Pawlenty administration will be able to argue that it made defensible decisions according to whatever book of rules they operated under, Molnau’s plea misses the point. After Reagan the criteria of minimal acceptability for all public functions shifted. In some cases–public schools, for example–the deterioration, instead of being addressed, was effectively promoted as a step toward privatization.
As corporate defendants in product liability cases have pointed out for years, “safety first” is not and cannot be an absolute. All design and maintenance decisions involve balancing cost with projected benefit. Otherwise, when it comes to metal arch bridges, we’d be riding on stainless steel. But since the Reagan era, the balance point has been moved, not only in physical infrastructure maintenance but in public health, food inspections and virtually every governmental function that bears on the public weal. Judgments are made, resources are allocated and in the end, as it always must be, a balance is struck. When it is, the thumb of Reaganomics is still on the scale.
In Minnesota, Molnau is the second Republican department head to be grilled this summer after a spectacular public policy failure. In June Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach, at times near tears, spent time before the legislature being grilled about an incident for which she had already issued a written apology. Mandernach, a former Franciscan nun who was by some accounts an excellent hospital administrator before she was tapped by Pawlenty to become the health commissioner, was already well-known for her part in a health department fiasco involving the posting of bogus information on the department’s website–the claim that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer.
This time the issue was miners’ lives. A 2006 study had suggested that workers in the northern Minnesota iron-mining industry had an extraordinarily high rate of the kind of cancer that you are prone to get if you spend your life working in mine dust. Specifically, the report noted that in the previous three years there had been thirty-five deaths from a rare asbestos-related cancer. The report was not released. Mandernach decided to sit on it in the name of “further studies.” For one year the worker-management dynamic that, among other things, sets working conditions had to find its balance point without the union or the public knowing about the thirty-five dead miners.
When the Minnesota health department finally decided to release the findings, there was much internal back-and-forth about the potential PR problems it might create, and the mining company got a one-week heads up.
During her appearance at the legislature, one northern Minnesota legislator, whose son works in the mining industry, told Mandernach he didn’t like the idea of his son having to wait years until she got funding for more studies before he polished up his résumé and started looking for another job. “I don’t want him dead before me,” he said.
There were calls for Mandernach’s resignation. But she and her party kept calling what was done an “error” and not a crime. Governor Pawlenty stuck with her, and he’s sticking with Molnau too. But the governor has made it clear he will support an increase in the gas tax. Yes, his office said, it’s fair to say that does mean he is breaking his no-tax pledge.