Minnesotans understand how important it is to have safe and effective roads and bridges. Our state’s economic growth and ability to provide a quality education and health care services depend on moving people and products. That’s why Minnesota voters have voted numerous times to constitutionally dedicate transportation user fees to fixing roads and bridges. And, according to our recent poll, more than three-quarters of Minnesotans would vote to do so again.
This is hardly new. Minnesota’s Constitution contains an entire article on highway funding because it is so important to have reliable funding when building major highway and bridge projects. Dedicating motor vehicle fees, like the sales tax on auto parts, in addition to the gasoline tax and license tab fees, just makes sense. It ensures that those who use the roads the most pay for them.
The other reason it makes sense to constitutionally dedicate the sales tax on auto parts was stated in the April 12 editorial opposing the amendment (“Road amendment carries hidden costs”): “…[S]tatutory spending,” the Star Tribune Editorial Board noted, “can be altered every time the Legislature meets. A constitutional dedication cannot.”
We know from past experience with the statutory dedication of the motor vehicle sales tax that legislators will take money away from road repair when times get tough. It wasn’t until the voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2006 that transportation funds were protected.
What’s more, no area of government was cut because Minnesotans voted to change the Constitution to ensure that motor vehicle sales tax money was spent on transportation.
The bottom line is this: How much of a priority is a well-maintained, modern transportation system for Minnesota? With deteriorating roads and bridges, it’s time to devote a small portion (0.6 percent) of the state’s budget to fixing transportation infrastructure — especially now, during a time of budget surplus, when the state has the flexibility to begin the redirection of these funds without triggering cuts to other spending priorities.
As the editorial points out, legislators have all the tools they need — the authority and the duty — to meet the state’s transportation needs. That’s exactly what they are doing with legislation that proposes making road repair a higher priority and ensuring that those funds won’t be taken away in the future.
It’s easy to argue that the state’s transportation-funding needs should be addressed through an increase in the gas tax. It’s much harder to build a diverse coalition of stakeholders willing to put their names, reputations and resources on the line to advocate for a new, reasonable, meaningful and politically viable way to broaden the base of financial support for our transportation system.
The fact is that an increase in the gas tax simply isn’t in the cards at the State Capitol right now. In fact, it almost never is. Legislators have voted to increase Minnesota’s gas tax exactly once since 1989, and that took a veto override. There is simply no appetite at the Legislature to raise the gas tax to fund much-needed improvements in our transportation system. And, yet, the need for additional investment continues to grow.
We have a choice. We can sit back and wait another decade or two for our deteriorating infrastructure to reach a crisis point, with the hope that such conditions will lead to an increase in the gas tax. Or we can make some progress today by using the state’s favorable budget situation to bring much-needed transportation-related dollars into the transportation system now to help fix our roads and bridges.
The people of Minnesota should have an opportunity to make that choice in November. We think they’ll support us.
Dan Smith is president and CEO, Cooperative Network. Tim Mackey is president, Laborers Council of MN and ND. Doug Loon is president, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. The article was also submitted on behalf of Barry Davies, business manager, Ironworkers Local 512; Vance Stuehrenberg, president, Minnesota Transportation Alliance; Glen Johnson, business manager, IUOE Local 49; and Tim Worke, CEO, Associated General Contractors of Minnesota.