Dayton offers some middle ground on transportation

MARSHALL – A year ago this week, Minnesota politicians went on record and reminded the voting public they ran out of time to get a substantial transportation bill put together during the 2015 legislative session. The result was “lights-on” legislation that essentially kept transportation funding at then-current levels.

No one was content by any means with that outcome, including Gov. Mark Dayton, who called the bill “very, very disappointing. On Monday, Dayton held a teleconference with statewide media to explain how he plans on making sure history doesn’t repeat itself, as he announced a pair of compromise proposals to fix Minnesota’s aging and underfunded transportation system.

“I’ve made every effort to find true middle ground,” Dayton said in the teleconference call. “People are telling Lieutenant Governor (Tina) Smith and myself that they want us to get a transportation package done this year – the bottom line for the 201 members of the Legislature is, are they gonna show the leadership necessary and compromise from their preferred position in order to get a real proposal with real money, that is reliable over the next 10 years or not? This is the time we’ll find out if we have a Legislature that can work together and with me.”

There’s no argument at the state Capitol over the need for a comprehensive transportation bill, especially considering that without legislative action funding for the state’s roads and bridges is estimated by Dayton’s office to decline by 45 percent. The question in 2015 was how a transportation fix was going to be paid for: Dayton’s plan of raising money from a gas tax increase or the Republican plan of funneling sales tax revenue from auto parts from the general fund to a transportation fund.

Dayton on Monday offered up a pair of proposals – one that harkens back to last year’s call for a gas tax increase, the other that could be viewed as more Republican-friendly.

His first plan, the one he prefers, includes a 5-cent gas tax increase, increased tab fees and using $200 million worth of General Fund revenues; the other would not raise gas taxes but would rely heavily ($400 million annually) on increased tab fees to accompany existing General Fund revenues ($200 million).

Each proposal, Dayton’s office says, would generate $600 million per year for roads and bridges (including $240 million in annual, ongoing funding for cities and counties to make local road and bridge improvements), and provide dedicated new revenues for Metro-area transit, paid for only in Metro-area counties.

Dayton said the $200 million from the General Fund is as high as he’ll go on that front – he said he’d rather leave that fund alone altogether.

“I believe $200 million per year from the General Fund is the most we could afford, given the current budget situation,” Dayton said. “Frankly, I would prefer there would be no General Fund money used, so that represents a big compromise on my part.”

The AP reported that Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt is pleased Dayton has agreed to use some general fund spending but that he “didn’t move very far” and his plan still relies too much on tax increases.

District 16 Sen. Gary Dahms called Dayton’s proposal a good start to negotiations.

“Will these be the final numbers, the final way this gets done? Probably not, but it does start the needle forward,” he said.

Dahms said he has some questions about the bill, like when it comes to the $200 million from the General Fund, is Dayton going to dedicate all sales taxes from auto parts and repairs to transportation fixes?

“We assume that’s what it means, but we don’t know that for sure,” the Republican senator said. “That’s what we’re asking his staff to get us information on.”

Dahms is also concerned about the proposed 0.5 metro-area sales tax for transit in that such a tax would have to be authorized by those counties before it takes effect.

Dayton’s proposal would kick in Jan. 1, 2017.