Transportation bills pass, starting the real Minnesota talks
ST. PAUL — Maybe the third time is a charm.
That is the hope of Minnesotans who are tired of dodging potholes and daily fighting other road and transit woes.
The state House and Senate have approved Republican-written transportation funding bills that greatly vary from what Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton wants. But despite having passed their legislation, it is more of a beginning.
"We have to start somewhere," House Transportation Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said Friday, March 31.
He said that with House, Senate and governor proposals all completed, "now is the time to get together."
And, he added, he does not want to sent Dayton a bill that is not acceptable. "I would like to get this done in one shot. I am not very interested in veto bait."
It is a story that MInnesotans now have heard three years in a row: Dayton and other Democrats want a gasoline tax increase while Republicans prefer to divert sales taxes on transportation-related purchases to roads and bridges.
The three-year delay may help Minnesota leaders agree on a transportation package this year, Torkelson said, because of the "pent up demand."
Senators spent five hours debating transportation Thursday night before voting 38-28 to provide what GOP leaders say would be $1.3 billion over the next two years. The House used a bit less time Friday afternoon before voting 76-54 to advance legislation that would spend $2 billion in the next two years.
Now, the bills head to negotiators in a House-Senate conference committee, where Torkelson said the Dayton administration should be involved as the three sides prepare a final bill before lawmakers adjourn May 22. They will try to reach an agreement that eluded them the past two years.
Most people agree that the state transportation system needs billions more dollars in the next 10 years.
Dayton offered his transportation plan early in the year. He wants to increase gasoline taxes 6.5 percent and boost motor vehicle tab fees. He, like legislative Republicans, also would borrow money to help funds transportation.
Senate Republicans say their plan would raise $3.6 billion over 10 years, while those in the House set their goal at $6 billion.
Republicans suggest diverting sales tax funds paid for transportation-related purchases such as car parts to roads and bridges. They say they want to keep transit projects funded about as they are now, but will not fund light rail.
Democrats complain that the GOP bills hurt bus transit and provide no money for light rail. Republicans say they like buses, but oppose opening more light rail lines.
"I hope to come up with a bill ... that will be more balanced," Torkelson said about negotiations.
Democrats spoke against using the sales tax for transportation, saying that when the economy sours money will be moved away from transportation to other uses.
"It will hurt our economy if we don't have dedicated funds," Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, said.
But, Torkelson said, "raising the gas tax is darned near impossible," and Democrats did not do it even when they ran the House, Senate and governor's office.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said Republican-run states such as Iowa and South Dakota have raised gas taxes.
The Torkelson bill includes funding for new rail crossings in Moorhead, Red Wing and Coon Rapids to separate roads from railroad track that carry a lot of oil trains.
Hornstein failed in his attempt to hire more rail inspectors. He said each new rail inspector would cost $125,000 annually, with money coming from increasing an assessment on railroads.
In other legislative news from late Thursday and Friday:
• The House voted 80-52 in favor of a Republican measure to cut taxes $1.35 billion in the next two years.
• Senators voted 42-25 to increase agriculture and housing program spending $220 million in the next two years. "This bill prioritizes Minnesota's family farmers, and our agricultural community at large, by increasing directed agricultural research and development focused on issues that impact them," Sen. Westrom, R- Elbow Lake, said.
• An environment bill to spend more than $830 million in the two years beginning July 1 passed the House 80-53. It would change the permitting process and make changes in the buffer law.
• Democratic-leaning groups TakeAction Minnesota, Minnesota Nurses Association, Land Stewardship Project, Minnesota Doctors for Health Equity and ISAIAH asked Dayton to veto a bill establishing a reinsurance program that was written to help lower individual health insurance policy premiums in 2018. The groups say the bill really would be a subsidy to insurance companies. Dayton says he will announce his decision on the bill Monday now that the House and Senate have passed it.