Tax Dispute Leaves Status Quo Transportation Funding

By Danielle Killey

Maybe next year.

That is what state lawmakers in charge of the transportation budget are saying about major transit and road projects, which likely will be put off because they cannot get new funds.

A gasoline tax planned to be a major part of the House and Senate transportation budget proposals was yanked after Gov. Mark Dayton said Monday that he would not support it, leaving the lawmakers with a revenue hole.

“We always envisioned this being a bill with a gas tax,” said House Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. “It’s difficult to do anything substantive.”

Senate Transportation and Public Safety Division Chairman Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, put forward a “status quo” transportation budget but tabled it at his committee meeting Wednesday.

“Obviously the committee was uncomfortable with the bill,” said Dibble, who told fellow committee members he was struggling with whether to vote for his own plan.

Dibble said he does not know what the next step will be.

Hornstein said he is “mulling over the possibility” of including a Twin Cities metropolitan area sales tax to pay for some transit projects in his budget proposal, which he plans to release today.

Dibble’s proposal does not include the tax. His $5.4 billion transportation bill included funding for buses and rail, street construction and repair projects, airports and other infrastructure work. He said it does not have any major policy changes or many new projects because he was not able to include the extra revenue.

“It’s a matter of principle and practicality that you have a transportation bill that’s fully balanced,” he said.

Transportation advocates lined up Wednesday to show their disappointment in what many called a “lights-on bill.”

“If we don’t increase funding, we will fall behind,” Minnesota Transportation Alliance Director Margaret Donahoe said.

She said transit organizations will have to cut services and infrastructure will suffer.

“In greater Minnesota, in particular, we have enormous needs,” Minnesota Public Transit Association lobbyist Sherry Munyon said, adding that the organization is disappointed that transit expansions will not happen this year.

Hornstein said he and Dibble knew the governor was not fully in favor of the gas tax, but “we didn’t know the extent of his concerns with this.”

The transportation committee chairmen abruptly canceled a presentation on their budgets Monday after Dayton’s statement. The three met Tuesday to discuss other options.

“He didn’t close the door for a future large transportation bill,” Hornstein said of the governor.

Dayton said he did not think Minnesotans would support a gas tax. Hornstein said he does not know whether that is true, but said the state’s residents do want safe infrastructure and road repairs to happen.

Other revenue sources can help fund projects, but the gas tax is the most stable, Hornstein said. “That is the reliable workhorse of funding roads and bridges in this state.”

The Senate’s bill also incorporates public safety funding, such as for the State Patrol, Capitol building security and the state’s emergency communications networks.

The House’s public safety funding is in a separate bill.

These are some highlights of the Senate’s transportation and public safety budget proposal for the next two years:

— Department of Transportation, $4.7 billion

— State road construction, $1.7 billion

— County and city road state aid, $1.5 billion

— Greater Minnesota transit, $34.3 million