Should MN amend the constitution (again) to get dedicated funds for roads?

Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate current sales tax revenue from the sale of motor vehicle repair and replacement parts, so that beginning July 1, 2020, all of the revenue is used exclusively for roads, including repair of state and local streets, highways and bridges and to match federal highway dollars? This amendment does not increase the rate of the current tax.

Senator Scott Newman is proposing to amend the state constitution (see above) to dedicate sales tax revenue collected on vehicle parts and repairs to fund state roads and bridges. The legislature can pass a constitutional amendment that goes to voters; the governor cannot veto or amend what the legislature passes.

Is this a good idea?

According to the Pioneer Press, “Abbey Bryduck of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, who supports the amendment, said the Newman plan would pump in as much money as a 9-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax increase after just raising it 11.5 cents in the past 30 years.”

Instead of raising taxes, the amendment would use the revenue from an existing tax to pay for this core requirement of state government.

Generally, I would say that state constitutions are not good places to appropriate funds for government services but the Center understands why frustrated lawmakers are resorting to this tool.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation under Gov. Mark Dayton dropped congestion relief from its goals in 2010. Read that again: the state agency in charge of mobility was told eight years ago it could ignore growing congestion and just focus on maintaining the roads we already have.

Minnesotans in the metro area have lots of time to ponder the wisdom of that policy change while stuck in maddening traffic. (You can read the details in our report on Congestion (it’s no accident) here. )

Businesses small and large all over the state need to move freight and people efficiently and safely.

Yet roads and other infrastructure, which are core state functions, are having a hard time getting to the top of the priority pile. Perhaps this is why fiscal conservatives like Senator Scott Newman have elevated transportation funding to a constitutional amendment.

Minnesota has done this before; in 2006 we approved a constitutional amendment to dedicate all motor vehicle sales tax (MVST) to transportation; at least 40 percent goes to “transit” and no more than 60 percent goes to roads and bridges. It was supposed to bring in about $300 million a year in 2006 dollars.

According to MPR when this passed, “(a) coalition of rural legislators and mayors said the amendment was poorly worded and might not direct enough money into highway projects. The wording said that at least 40 percent of the money would be used for mass transit, with no more than 60 percent for roads and bridges. Critics said that vague language left open the possibility that light rail and bus projects might grab nearly all the money.”

Were those critics rights?

I do not know how much MVST has produced year to year or how the spending has broken down but I will try to find out. I do know that we have spent a lot on LRT without any positive measurable impact on congestion. In fact, the Green Line on University has made congestion worse on I-94 because some cars that used to cruise University shifted to the highway.

This effort to yet again amend the constitution points to a serious dysfunctionality in Minnesota’s transportation policy; lawmakers should not have to resort to amending the constitution to expand roads and bridges, or to get congestion relief in the metro area. Trucks move a lot of freight to market from all over the state; it is what makes living well outside the metro area possible.

By the way, most states use the general fund to pay for roads.

Here is (more) proof that state government has run amok: I recently testified in favor of a bill that would require our department of transportation (MnDOT) to make congestion relief a priority for the metro area. The MnDOT spokesperson opposed the bill, saying they could not do that with current funding. But it did not seem to be about the money; he did not even offer to work with lawmakers to get it done. He gave the distinct impression that he did not even think it was a good idea. Why?

MnDOT has been captured by the “multi-model” approach to mobility championed by the Metropolitan Council, our mega regional planning and transit planner, owner, operator and funder (it levies taxes). They are Met Council Multi-Model Moonies at MnDOT.

The Met Council’s 2040 transportation plan requires people to get out of their cars, live in high rises along LRT and walk to work. And by God if you don’t, they are going to punish you by making you sit in traffic until you beg for more LRT. You could say it is very metro-centric.

The Council refuses to expand highway lanes, admitting that it is OK with increased congestion and has even starved good bus transit in favor of expensive LRT that the metro does not have the density to support. All of this in the sub-zero winters, and humid summers of Minnesota.

This bad transportation policy is exactly why the Met Council’s governance structure and scope of power must change. Then we would not need to amend the constitution to get good funding for roads and congestion relief in the metro. But it could take years to turn that powerful ship.

Metro congestion relief and good roads for the state should not be a Republican or Democrat issue; it is just smart policy.

I am looking out the window at a snow storm today; good thing I did not bike to work today!