The Minnesota Legislature wrapped up its 2014 session last Friday. A newspaper headline followed with "Winners: Marijuana and Tax Relief." The succinct nature of the headline fails to mention that it is some people who wish to use marijuana as a pain reliever and some people who will be paying lower taxes who might be called winners.
On the marijuana issue, it remains to be seen how many will benefit from the marijuana law and whether it will be a revenue neutral law. I haven't heard any views from the insurance companies as to whether they will start reimbursing patients who use medical marijuana for treatment of pain. Also, what will be the bureaucratic cost of the government agency that will oversee the sale of the drug and supervising the growers and sellers? Is the drug always to be imported from outside the state or can it be grown inside the state?
Those who will have lower taxes are a large group. For example, there is to be an increase in the homestead allowance and comparable relief for renters.
Other winners could be mentioned from the bonding side: Construction on the Minnesota State University System and University of Minnesota campuses was approved. For the southwest corner of the state, especially for the Worthington and Luverne areas, some funding was provided for the Lewis and Clark Rural Water project. The Amateur Sports Center funding for the Marshall area should be mentioned as well.
Now almost everyone is happy that they will pay less tax. However, a natural question to be posed is, "Who or what are the losers?"
For Marshallites one of the losers was the MERIT Center. There are many other projects that also did not gaining funding or bonding authority. But I would like to mention an area that should have received greater attention and, yes, greater funding whether it be outright funding or bonding That area is improvement to the transportation infrastructure.
With the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in the recent past, I would have thought there would be greater concern about the safety issues of our deteriorating roads and bridges. Last week I drove back and forth to Minneapolis primarily on MN 19, MN 5, and US 212. Parts of those roads have been refurbished, but there are long stretches that when driven you get the bumpity, bumpity bouncing of the car every few feet. MN 19 through Marshall has long needed refurbishing. MN 23 has had a few upgrades, but some stretches have also been neglected on that roadway. US 59 through Marshall is another roadway that needs total repaving.
The funding of our roads is primarily from revenues generated by the gas tax and diesel tax. Minnesota raised the per gallon tax by about a third six years ago bringing the total Minnesota gas tax to 28.6/gallon. The federal gas tax that also funds the roadways is 18.4/gallon for a total of 47.0/gallon. The neighboring states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa have a cheaper tax, but Wisconsin is currently at 51.0/gallon. As cars and other motor vehicles using the roadways have become more fuel efficient the revenue has not kept pace with the need. The federal tax rate has not been increased since 1991.
Raising the money solely by the tax per gallon will not bring our roadways up to a good standard. It is estimated that raising the rate by 14/gallon would not do much more than keeping the overall condition of the roads the same. To improve our roads, the amount needed would require doubling our current rate or more. Furthermore, if we do not start improving the roads, it will cost more in the future to get us back to where the roads should be.
Changing the way we fund the improvements is necessary. One suggestion is to charge more for the vehicles based on the weight of the vehicles on the basis that the heavier vehicles do indeed use up more of the life of the road than do the lighter vehicles. The number of miles driven as a basis for a road tax would seem to be better and is not subject to the fluctuation of improved costs for miles based upon gas usage efficiency. Gas usage efficiency is very important as we seek to reduce CO2, but it is not a determiner for road life usage.
There are other aspects to consider related to our roadways, not the least of which is public transit and particularly mass transit. Many rural areas have no public transit at all.
We are major users of our nations roadways. During the past month we completed what has become an annual trip by car from Minnesota to Florida and back. The route was not the shortest possible as we stopped to see relatives and friends. The trip was 4,895 miles through 17 states all in 12 days. Gas prices varied and Minnesota was not the most expensive - that went to Florida.
And finally a bit of trivia that came from watching "The Big Bang Theory" on TV. There are four state capitals that are not connected by Interstate highways. Most Minnesotans probably would know about Pierre, S.D. The other three are: Jefferson City, Mo.; Dover, Del.; and Juneau, Alaska.
Until next time: Oh, Fiddlesticks!