Counties Lift Transportation To Top Priority

Minnesota’s ability to get products to market will be at risk if state lawmakers and the governor fail to break a transportation funding impasse, county officials warn.

“Our harvest, timber and manufactured products have gained and held leadership positions in world markets because we have historically been able to move products out of the field, forest and factory more efficiently than competitors,” Douglas County Commissioner Jim Stratton said. “But that is rapidly changing as time is catching up with decades of underfunding our local road system.”

Experts say the state is billions of dollars in arrears when it comes to road and bridge funding.

The Minnesota Rural Counties group, of which Stratton is president, released a report showing that the major concern of its members is improved road funding. And, county officials said, it must be dedicated funding that is not in competition with education, health and other state programs.

About half of the 29 rural counties that belong to the group put road funding at the top of their priority list, and all said a majority of the new funding should be constitutionally dedicated.

Friday’s report comes on the heels of the Association of Minnesota Counties announcing that it has reversed a long-held position opposing transferring money out of the state general fund for transportation. Money from the general fund is used for a wide range of state programs.

However, the association, which represents all 87 counties, reported that a compromise should include a vehicle registration fee increase, a source of money that only can be used for transportation.

“The time for a compromise is now because the risks to the public and cost to taxpayers will only grow if our transportation needs remain unaddressed,” said Swift County Commissioner Gary Hendrickx, president of the association.

Legislative Republicans want to divert sales tax paid on vehicle-related sales, such as car parts, to road and bridge spending. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton prefers a dime-a-gallon fuel tax increase. Both sides also suggest borrowing some money for transportation needs.

Dayton says a gas tax increase would not put much of a burden on motorists, but would help fill a road funding shortage pegged at billions of dollars over the next decade. He said that in times of a tighter state budget money would be taken from transportation for other programs.

Republicans say that Minnesotans pay too much in taxes as it is, and more of that money should go to transportation.

“Let’s not allow partisan difference to be a barrier to our needs any longer,” Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said.

Hendrickx said he is optimistic there will be a transportation compromise.

Stratton said he is not surprised that county leaders put such a high priority on transportation funding, given that it is a “perennial priority and a perennial disappointment.”

When the state does not fund roads and other needs such as human services, Stratton said, it puts a bigger burden on county property taxpayers. “In a surplus year with legislators saying greater Minnesota needs are important, we hope these and other issues receive the attention and relief they deserve.”

Many spending bills must pass this year for the state to have a budget beginning on July 1. However, more transportation funding is not mandatory, although both sides list it as a priority.

Republicans and Democrats have made few changes in their transportation proposals the past three years, and before the holiday break there was no indication how that impasse could be broken.