Commissioner, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job


Minnesota Lt. Gov./Commissioner of Transportation Carol Molnau recently proved the least adept of the many elected officials publicly discussing last week’s Interstate Hwy. 35W Mississippi River bridge collapse. To her credit, however, she delivered a terrific logical fallacy.

Opinion: Commissioner, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job

Molnau, after a fashion, leapt to her department’s defense. While most elected officials soberly pledged action while counseling patience, Molnau grew testy.

Insistent reporter questions concerning the bridge’s inspections record appeared to exasperate and finally frustrate her. She lashed out, invoking her daughter’s daily commuting drive over the bridge to call a halt to that line of questioning.

Herein lies the fallacy, which is a flawed reasoning pattern or argument. The “appeal to pity” or, in Latin, argumentum ad misericordiam, is one of the favorites of folks under fire.

Rather than answer the questions, Molnau retreated from her elected and appointed government leadership roles, recasting herself as a concerned parent. Don’t ask me legitimate questions about my department’s performance, she seemed to say, because my daughter made two of the 141,000 daily Mississippi crossings on I-35W before the bridge fell down.

It was a nifty way for Molnau to deflect questions about her MNDOT management.

When Gov. Tim Pawlenty abruptly reversed his longtime opposition to road and bridge revenue increases, Molnau separately opined that fixing Minnesota’s transportation backlog would require as much as a 35 cent per gallon gasoline tax increase and that Minnesotans wouldn’t stand for it.

The Minnesota 2020 staff has enjoyed a vigorous internal debate over that bizarre statement. We fall into two camps: 1) Molnau didn’t get the memo about the governor’s reversal or 2) Molnau was actually on-message, floating a trial balloon for the governor’s future rejection of actual new revenue.

Several days ago, Pawlenty declared that he’s open to a gas tax increase if legislative leaders will consider his own plans for trunk highway bonding. We’ve crossed this collapsing bridge before.

The governor is always open to ideas, including a gas tax increase, but he’s only willing to support borrowing to make needed transportation investments. During the last legislative session, a modest gas tax hike of 5 cents a gallon failed on this exact point, although the vetoed bill also included nearly all the bonding Pawlenty asked for – to be paid off by phasing in another 2.5 cents at the pump.

With the state’s senior elected leadership negotiating special legislative session terms, a great many critical issues are in play. I believe that the governor is angling to preserve his no-new-taxes policy position, despite public outrage over the bridge tragedy. He’s realized phenomenal political success by deflecting public attention from the consequences of his policies. He’s a master of sounding reasonable.

Just this week, Pawlenty said: “We’ve got some ideas. They’ve got some ideas. I sure hope that we can come together.”

That declaration is not a pledge of action. It’s not even a call to action. As criticism grows, I’m entirely confident that Pawlenty will remain hopeful. He’ll negotiate with legislators and stand by his MnDOT commissioner. He will always sound reasonable.

Should push come to shove, and I suspect that it will during subsequent MnDOT performance evaluations, the governor will regretfully accept Commissioner Molnau’s resignation. Stripped of the transportation portfolio, Lt. Gov. Molnau will soldier on, advocating her administration’s clear policy choices.

Until then, Commissioner, you’re doing a heck of a job.