Editorial: Lawmakers take key first step with transportation funding proposals

Minnesota lawmakers have had difficulty in turning major transportation legislation into law. It’s been nearly a decade since the Legislature has successfully sent a long-term transportation funding package to the governor’s desk.ECMEditorial_Q

After the 2016 legislative session ended without a transportation bill, many candidates – now legislators – promised in their campaigns 2017 would be different.

Without additional investment, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s annual construction budget could drop by as much as one third in 2018 – at a time when additional investments are necessary to address deteriorating infrastructure and make strategic enhancements to our transportation system.

According to Gov. Dayton’s administration, Minnesota is facing an $18 billion transportation funding gap over the next 20 years.

In late January, Dayton released a two-year, $45.8 billion budget proposal that included an increase in the state’s gas tax, a measure that Dayton said would cost the average Minnesotan driver $75 a year.

Forty percent of new revenues in Dayton’s budget would go to counties, cities and townships to repair or replace 1,700 miles of roads and 235 bridges.

New funding for road and bridge construction would be provided by initiating a 6.5 percent sales tax on gasoline, bringing the current 1.25 percent base tax on vehicle registration fees to 1.5 percent, and raising car registration fees by $10.

Many Democrats favor raising the gas tax, currently at 28.5 cents per gallon. That’s sure to be a point of contention moving forward.

The governor has argued that without a dedicated funding source like the gas tax, any new transportation spending would be on the budget-cutting chopping block if a recession hits and lawmakers have to start trimming.

We agree with the Republican plan to use general fund revenues generated from the statewide sales tax on auto parts and rental cars to help fund increased investment in our transportation system. It’s a logical first step.

Existing revenues that would be shifted from the general fund in the 2018-19 biennium include $296 million from the auto parts sales tax, $64 million from the motor vehicle lease sales tax, $52 million from the sales tax on auto repairs, and $37 million from the auto rental sales tax.

Transportation-related revenue should fund transportation projects. Dedicating the revenues by statute would free the legislature from having to take action every year to prioritize transportation funding.

Does this approach take a little discipline from lawmakers not to dip into the pot of money down the road? Yes, but it takes a lot less discipline than a year-to-year effort. And in the past, those efforts have failed.

The omnibus transportation bill approved in late March by the House Transportation Finance Committee boosts state spending on roads and bridges by roughly $2 billion over the next two years and by $6 billion over the next 10 years through a shift in general fund dollars and significant borrowing. That level of funding is long overdue.

House Republicans would not raise the state’s gas tax to provide a dedicated boost in transportation dollars, an approach favored by House and Senate DFLers and Gov. Dayton.

Compromise on a smaller gas tax increase with redirection of auto-related taxes to transportation would be one way to get things moving this session.

Democrats contend the Republican plan would also deal a significant blow to transit across the state, especially in the Twin Cities metro. Now is not the time to be eliminating transit needs.

The Senate’s transportation bill dedicates $1.4 billion less over the next 10 years. That difference with the House transportation plan will have to be reconciled before lawmakers can come to the bargaining table with Gov. Dayton.

Minnesotans depend upon a safe, efficient and reliable transportation network to support the movement of people and commerce.

Lawmakers and Gov. Dayton must come together to show the people of Minnesota that its government can deliver on this core function of state government.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board. Reactions to this editorial — and to any commentary on these pages – are always welcome. Send to: [email protected]