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Amendment Stops Pols From Diverting Road and Bridge Funding

There may be an amendment to the state constitution coming down the road on the ballot this November aimed at improving the state’s highway infrastructure. If passed by the legislature, the ballot question would let voters decide whether the $250 million a year Minnesotans pay in taxes on oil changes, auto parts and other vehicle services should be spent on road and bridge construction only. Nothing else.

A coalition of business and labor organizations called “Vote Yes 4 Roads” supports the passage of the constitutional amendment, along with a hefty majority of Minnesotans polled by the advocacy group. While those taxes currently go to roads and bridges, the amendment would guarantee future administrations keep their hands off the quarter of a billion dollar annual kitty.

We need to keep the money to improve roads and bridges in a lockbox so politicians can’t use these funds for other projects! Minnesota’s Legislature now has the opportunity to support crucial infrastructure funding. One hundred percent of taxes generated from the sale of auto parts should be used to revive our roads, highways and bridges – it’s only fair.

The amendment would apparently effectively ban vehicle-generated sales taxes from being diverted to light rail transit, bike and pedestrian paths. Not coincidentally, the Star Tribune reports there’s no momentum for increasing the gas tax as in some other states.

“I believe that almost anybody who deals with the transportation system — whether it’s roads, bridges — recognizes that our infrastructure needs an influx of money,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, the bill’s sponsor. “The question always is, ‘Where’s the money going to come from?’ ”

More than two dozen states across the country have opted to increase their respective gas taxes over the past four years to pay for the upkeep of crumbling roads and bridges, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. That includes deep-red states such as Tennessee and South Carolina that are governed by staunch fiscal conservatives, the group said.

But similar appeals in Minnesota have fallen flat in recent years, leaving transportation advocates looking for other funding solutions to fix the state’s compromised roads and bridges.

On the bright side, Gov. Mark Dayton has no say over whether constitutional amendments go before voters. But the bill has a long way to go at the State Capitol.

Last month, the Senate Transportation and Finance Committee opted to approve Newman’s bill in an 8-7 vote. It’s unclear whether the House will take up the measure, however.

“I’ve so far been telling everyone that I’m solidly on the fence,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who heads the House Transportation Committee. “I’m waiting for more information.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” he continued. “But I think it’s a bad idea if it’s put on the ballot without a good solid approach.”

Meantime, the usual suspects hope to prevent the amendment from going before voters in order to preserve their ability to raid the transportation fund for pet projects in the future.

At the Senate hearing last month, several opponents also pointed out that public transit funding for the metro would not be part of the dedicated funding stream — an issue that’s deeply polarizing at the Capitol.

“Minnesotans need affordable, sustainable options to get to where they need to go,” said Joshua Houdek of the Sierra Club’s North Star chapter. “This is just a Band-Aid. It’s not going to work. We need revenue to fix roads, bridges, expand transit and bike and pedestrian paths.”

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