Rep. Ron Erhardt, a longtime player in transportation politics at the Capitol, broke with fellow DFLers Wednesday to suggest that money from the state general fund should be used to repair roads and bridges.
"There is precedent for this. It's going on all across the country," Erhardt said at a press conference. While Minnesota's transportation budget is funded entirely by the state gas tax and other transportation-related taxes and fees, Erhardt produced a document showing that 33 U.S. states fund transportation at least to a small degree from the general fund.
"I think it's time we at least consider this option," Erhardt said.
While the gas tax, license tab fees and other transportation taxes feed the state's highway fund, some other transportation-linked taxes including taxes on motor vehicle rentals go into the general fund.
Re-dedicating those to highway funds would provide between $221 million and $327 million additional for roads and bridges, Erhardt said. Another $200 million a year could come by way of shifting transportation costs currently covered by dedicated sources onto the general fund.
But those proposals put Erhardt at odds with most other DFLers, including Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, who have been firmly against spending from the general treasury on roads. Democrats have repeatedly warned that would pit road-building interests against other recipients of general fund dollars: schools and college, health and assistance programs, general aid to local governments and the like.
However, some Republicans in the House majority have been more open to using general fund dollars for roads -- particularly given the hefty $1.9 billion state budget surplus. House Republicans have plans to release their own comprehensive transportation funding proposal next week.
Dayton and Senate DFLers have proposed similar plans that rely on new revenue from a wholesale gas tax increase, license tab fee increase and a sales tax increase in the seven-county metro to pay for more transit projects.
Erhardt's proposal incorporates much of those revenue sources as well, for a total transportation investment of $12.7 billion in the next decade. That's a bigger total tab even than proposed by Dayton.
"There are parts Republicans support, there are parts the governor supports," Erhardt said. "My goal is to find a middle ground that we can all agree will fix Minnesota's roads, bridges and transit funding now."
Transportation politics shaped Erhardt's recent political career. A longtime Republican, the 85-year-old Erhardt was one of six House GOP members who in 2008 joined DFLers to override then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a gas tax increase.
Largely due to fallout from that vote, Erhardt lost the Republican endorsement for re-election later that year. In 2010, he shifted to the DFL, and in 2012 regained his old House seat, this time as a Democrat. In the 2013-14 session he chaired the House Transportation Committee.