Our viewpoint: Post-session job for legislators: find workable transportation plan

Both sides of the aisle were in agreement when this year’s legislative session began that funding for transportation needs in Minnesota was a priority.

As the session wore on it was obvious that there were two widely varying philosophies for funding upgrades to the state’s roads and bridges.

But no one mentioned, especially with a projected budget surplus of $1.9 billion, that absolutely nothing would be done about transportation funding.

As the session wound down and Gov. Mark Dayton triggered a need for a special session by vetoing a bipartisan agreement on education funding, Minnesotans learned nothing would be done about budget needs for transportation until the 2016 session that begins in about nine months.

The proposal put forth by Gov. Dayton and the DFL-controlled Senate after the session began featured a wholesale gas tax that would have increased the cost of a gallon of gas by about 16 cents at current prices. The 6.5 percent increase would be more than 16 cents a gallon if the price of gas rose more than the small increases that have taken place the past few months.

The proposal from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives was for about $7 billion and featured borrowing by the state and the use of some general fund money. In their original proposals the Republicans wanted to use some of the projected state surplus, while the DFL leadership rejected the idea of using such money.

It’s estimated that about $1 billion of the projected $1.9 billion surplus remains left over.

It’s also estimated state government will spend about $41.65 billion during the two-year budget cycle that begins July 1, an increase of about 4.85 percent over the $39.72 billion spent in the biennium that ends June 30.

Unlike some of the bills passed in the special session, a transportation funding bill is not necessary to keep government running. But it’s every bit as urgent as other state spending bills.

How urgent?

A 2014 report from the Minnesota Department of Transportation indicated that more than half of the state’s roads are more than 50 years old, and that 40 percent of the state’s bridges are more than 40 years old. In the next three years, the report said, 20 percent of Minnesota’s roads will “pass their useful life.”

If that report is accurate it was wrong for legislators to end the 2015 session without addressing long-term transportation needs.

Sure, legislators will do something next year. And maybe they will be wise enough to use part of the projected surplus – if it is still there – to help fund transportation needs that nearly everyone agrees are there.

Meanwhile, deterioration of the state’s roads and bridges will continue over the next nine months and both sides will likely blame the other, as they have already done, for the do-nothing attitude toward transportation funding in the past session.

That’s not fair to Minnesotans who pay the taxes that produced the projected budget surplus of $1.9 billion, 73 percent of the state general fund revenue coming from sales tax and income tax.

The lower price of gasoline has given Minnesotans more money to spend and thus has improved the economy. That makes us wonder if the gas tax is the right way to go for funding transportation needs.

Tom Bakk, a DFLer from Cook who is majority leader of the Senate, and Richard Cohen, a DFLer from St. Paul who is chair of the Senate Finance Committee, say that Senate Democrats “make responsible, strategic investments in priorities – like transportation – that are shared by all Minnesotans. We invest in a comprehensive transportation plan with dedicated and reliable funding to finally fix our roads and bridges and provide transit options in communities throughout Minnesota.”

Kurt Daudt, a Republican from Crown who is speaker of the House, looks at the situation differently.

“At a time when we have almost a $2 billion surplus,” he wrote in early May, “the governor and Senate Democrats are proposing the largest gas tax increase in state history to pay for a core function of state government: our roads and bridges. It’s just not logical . . .The gas tax is one of the most regressive taxes, hurting low-income families the most.”

The statements by leaders of the two parties show how differently they perceive transportation funding.

It should be noted that in the bonding bill passed in the special session there was an increase from $20.4 million for roads and bridges to $172 million for state highways, local roads and bridges and railroad crossings.

Our challenge to the two parties is to start right now on reaching an agreement to fund the state’s transportation needs. Let’s not wait until next March and then put it off again until the end of the 2016 session.

The taxpayers in Minnesota deserve a much better performance on transportation funding than they got this time around.

Get to work, legislators, and give us a workable plan that is ready when the next session begins. We were short-changed this time.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board. Reactions to this editorial — and to any commentary on these pages – are always welcome. Send to: editor.sun@ecm-inc.com.