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Will Governor Dayton Veto Money for Roads?

 

The Legislature had promised to get bills in front of the Governor well before the end of session this year—and they are right on time to do that. Easter Break is one week away—it looks like legislators may have earned a week off.

The House and Senate have both passed transportation bills, among others big items (tax and education). We are happy to see that both bills follow the big idea recommended in the Center’s Minnesota Policy Blueprint for Transportation: road, roads, and more roads funded with existing revenue.

Both bills fund the Met Council to support existing transit. Unfortunately, the Senate bill was amended to allow metro counties to raise additional funds for new light rail by increasing the local sales tax. That language should come out in conference committee.

We do not object in principle to funding existing light rail and bus transit but the budget should force the Met Council and other providers to look hard at operational efficiencies, and consider fare increases where warranted. The Met Council has not raised fares since 2008—and all transit operates at a subsidy. Also, unlike buses, the trains run on an honor system, reflecting the Council’s attitude that transit should be free. That is a problem that can only be fixed with a new governor and a re-structured Met Council.

And as for any new light rail, the Center has repeatedly called for a moratorium. Transportation policy should limit the damage to the existing light rail system, and perhaps shift the costs to Minneapolis and St. Paul where the light rail operates.

Remember, except for the spending bill, most of the work done last session was vetoed by Dayton—or in the case of transportation, died because Senate DFLers from the Metro demanded funding for Southwest Light Rail literally in the last 5 minutes of the session. Since pot holes have only gotten deeper and bigger, let’s see what is in the transportation bills for roads that are now headed to conference committee.

In the House, the transportation bill passed with some bipartisan support (76-54). You can see why. According to the House GOP news release:

House Republicans are addressing a statewide need and core function of state government (roads and bridges) by using existing resources, NOT raising taxes. In the next two years, we’re putting $2.1 billion toward our transportation needs with an emphasis on the roads and bridges used by Minnesotans each and every day.

The proposal, House File 861, creates a new fund of existing tax revenue streams called the Transportation Priorities Fund. This new fund uses current, transportation-related state tax revenues to invest $450 million in new dollars for roads and bridges. Additionally, the transportation proposal would fund:

  • $25 million for the Small Cities Road Assistance program
  • $300 million for Corridors of Commerce program
  • $35 million for rail grade crossings
  • Funding to repair or replace all 97 bridges on MnDOT’s local bridge priority list

 

What about the Senate? According to the Faribault Daily News:

“Senators (voted) 38-28 to provide what GOP leaders say would be $1.3 billion over the next two years…. Senate Republicans say their plan would raise $3.6 billion over 10 years, while those in the House set their goal at $6 billion…. (Senate Republicans) say they want to keep transit projects funded about as they are now, but will not fund light rail. Democrats complain that the GOP bills hurt bus transit and provide no money for light rail. Republicans say they like buses, but oppose opening more light rail lines.

Democrats spoke against using the sales tax for transportation, saying that when the economy sours, money will be moved away from transportation to other uses.  “It will hurt our economy if we don’t have dedicated funds,” Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, said.

With all due respect, Rep. Schultz, it will hurt the economy if we don’t fix the roads.

Isn’t this what the voters asked for? Roads and bridges are a core function of local and state government. They are falling apart, and in some cases, are unsafe, or need to be expanded, like yesterday. Light rail, on the other hand, has been and remains highly controversial. It does not have the support of the Legislature—or the suburban counties. The feds do not like SWLRT anymore—and have signaled the deal may be dead.

Why can’t the Governor sign a “roads” transportation bill as an Easter gift to the state, and then get on to other pressing matters, like tax relief and education?

 

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