By Dan Linehan
---- — MANKATO — During his first tour of the state in his campaign for governor, former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers drove into Mankato on Highway 14 from the west.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has said it needs more money and maintain its current system and do mega-projects like Highway 14.
So what would a Gov. Zellers do with transportation, and Highway 14?
He doesn't like the idea of raising the gas tax.
“Our cars are getting more fuel efficient.”
Instead of raising taxes, Zellers said we “should re-invent the wheel” on transportation.
“Whatever we've been doing isn't working,” he said. “So let's try something new.”
His ideas include getting more federal money and using more design-build contracts, where the contractor works with MnDOT to develop specifications for a project.
On another Mankato issue, state support for a civic center, Zellers praised the ranking system used by the state last summer to disburse bonding money. Zellers said the Legislature's bonding allocations are too often influenced by politics.
“Rather than just be a political discussion, it can be far more of an economic discussion,” he said of the rankings, which scored job-creating projects higher.
On local government aid, Zellers said the state should help rural areas more than big cities.
“Rather than fund Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth at the amount of money they have, maybe those dollars should be spread over rural Minnesota more equitably,” he said.
The budget that Zellers helped craft as House speaker in 2011 kept local government aid flat for 2012.
Much of Zellers' reputation rests on how one views the government shutdown and eventual budget resolution in 2011.
Though he would run in a primary, Zellers is seeking the Republican nomination. His first argument for delegates is that he can balance the state budget without raising taxes.
“We took on Mark Dayton's keynote idea and we won. He wanted to raise taxes and we didn't.”
Zellers has also worked with Republicans from all over the state, showing delegates he has statewide experience, he said. Though Zellers won't bring a personal fortune into the race, he said he's a hard worker who will be able to raise small amounts of money from lots of people.
And he blames the governor, who he considers a “friend,” for the 21-day state government shutdown.
“We in the Legislature, Democrats and Republicans, didn't shut down government. Mark Dayton did,” he said.
That's because Dayton got the Republican offer on June 30, before the shutdown started, and signed the same budget to end the shutdown, Zeller said.
So, if the public supported Republicans' message in 2010, why did they vote so many out of office two years later?
Zellers blames factors beyond his control, such as Obama's 7.5 percent margin of victory in Minnesota. He downplayed the effect of the defeated constitutional amendments he helped put on the ballot. And he said people often forget how Republicans took both the Senate and the House in 2010.
As Zellers had lunch at Pub 500, he chatted with one of the owners, Tom Frederick Jr.
“Know full well I'm doing it for you,” Zellers said to Frederick.
As he did while announcing his candidacy Sunday, Zellers repeatedly emphasized his rural roots and middle-class lifestyle. And he echoed the arguments of Republican leadership this session that middle-class Minnesotans will see tax increases from the DFL budget.
In a statement, DFL Chairman Ken Martin said Zellers' "short tenure as Speaker of the House will be forever remembered for his lack of leadership and uncompromising partisanship which led to the longest government shutdown in our state's history."