Investing in Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure is imperative for the future of our state. In finding the best path to move forward, the Minnesota Legislature must answer a pivotal question: How do we secure the necessary funding, to the tune of about $900 million per year?
One proposal on the table is to ask voters to amend the Minnesota Constitution and permanently dedicate sales tax revenue for transportation. In “Transportation funding amendment is needed” (April 21) leaders of the business community advanced the false rhetoric that it is a good idea to tie the hands of the governor and Legislature.
In reality, constitutionally dedicating these funds will not solve Minnesota’s transportation needs and will likely have a negative impact on the state’s ability to fund vital programs outside of transportation. Here’s what’s wrong with the proposed constitutional amendment:
It robs Peter to pay Paul. The proposal permanently takes funding away from critical state investments like E-12 education, higher education, health care and public safety. We don’t need to create more budget problems for ourselves.
It’s not enough. The proposals on the table would provide between $314 million and $454 million per year, when fully phased in, and the need will be $900 million. While this is not an insignificant investment, it gives the false impression to Minnesotans that by voting yes, our state’s transportation needs will be met. We should solve the whole problem.
It’s incomplete. This strategy ignores the needed funding for transit systems across Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro area. When we break down the $900 million need, it is estimated that $600 million a year is required to address the state’s highway transportation infrastructure, while $300 million is needed to sufficiently support Minnesotans across the state who make more than 107 million trips on transit each year. And that number is growing.
It’s inflexible. Right now, the state’s economy is at full employment and, thanks to Gov. Mark Dayton’s brand of structurally balanced budgeting, the state has a surplus. What happens when the economy stalls, there is a downward swing in the business cycle or a recession settles in? When the economy starts to slow down, so will our revenues. Similar measures in other states have proved to be problematic during economic downturns. A constitutional amendment ties the hands of the governor and Legislature when they should have every tool to manage the budget. We should not be shortsighted when changing our Constitution.
By contrast, Dayton has proposed a comprehensive plan in his last two biennial budgets to properly address this urgent need. The governor’s NexTen proposal for transportation provides the needed funding for the transportation system through an increase in the gas tax, an increase in registration taxes and a sales tax in the metro area that would be dedicated to transit. The governor’s proposal recognizes that the transportation system needs to be addressed as a whole, with funding for state roads and bridges, local roads, and transit. Additionally, the governor’s plan increases funding through existing mechanisms that are already constitutionally dedicated to road funding.
This constitutional amendment is not the answer. It is a gimmick that even House Speaker Kurt Daudt admitted at an April 2016 event in the city of Champlin is only intended to “starve out the general fund.”
With fewer than three weeks left in the session, we call on the Legislature to come to the table and work with us on finding a funding solution that will best support our transportation infrastructure now and into the future. The state needs a solution, not a gimmick.
Myron Frans is commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget. Charles Zelle is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.