Rooting for a special session of the Minnesota Legislature this summer to finish the tax, bonding and transportation work it left undone in May? If so, please root a little louder. It was not clear Wednesday that state lawmakers can hear you.
The latest closed-door confab among Gov. Mark Dayton and leaders of the four legislative caucuses ended at midday Wednesday with mixed signals, renewed demands and no sign of movement toward bipartisan compromise. Urgency was also lacking, particularly on the part of House Republicans. “I’d say it’s unlikely that there will be a special session before July 1,” said Speaker Kurt Daudt.
Legislative leaders and Dayton say they will talk again next Tuesday. Their Wednesday meeting will be the only one this week; they met just once last week. That’s the same “slow-mo” negotiating dance that this lawmaking troupe performed last fall and winter, when Dayton’s call for agreement on a special session agenda led to months of sporadic talks but no deal.
If the current round of talks proves similarly fruitless, Minnesota will be worse for it. The tax bill, vetoed because it contained a potentially costly error, would deliver $280 million through June 30, 2017, in relief for student loan debtors, small businesses, low-income families and working families with young children. The bonding bill’s public works funding would help pay for badly needed upgrades to water treatment plants, college campus improvements, low-income housing and much more. That bill’s transportation provisions (a multiyear transportation bill collapsed, and some of its short-term components moved into the bonding bill) would accelerate much-needed road projects.
That’s a lot for lawmakers to walk away from. They shouldn’t want to face the voters in fewer than five months with so much unfinished.
But one big issue reportedly under discussion by top lawmakers Wednesday — how Metro Transit is governed — should be left behind, for now. It’s too much for the Legislature to handle well in a special session. We urge Dayton and legislators to impanel a working group to recommend changes in Metro Transit governance to the 2017 Legislature, while still finding a way to allow the next rapid transit project in the build-out queue, Southwest light rail, to go forward on schedule.
For reasons largely related to political expediency in previous years, Metro Transit is governed in bifurcated fashion. Its operations are controlled by the Metropolitan Council, whose 17 members are appointed by the governor and thus are directly accountable neither to the voters nor the Legislature. But capital improvements to the transit network, such as light rail and bus rapid transit, are funded by the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), comprising representatives of five counties — Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Washington and Anoka — in which a quarter-cent transit sales tax is collected.
That arrangement is not just convoluted. It’s also fragile, as evidenced by this week’s move by the Dakota County Board to withdraw from the CTIB and retain for itself the transit sales tax proceeds it collects. The other two suburban counties in the CTIB are undoubtedly watching Dakota County’s threat with great interest.
The possibility looms that by default, Metro Transit improvements will be funded by — and inevitably controlled by — Hennepin and Ramsey counties alone. That would be a development with far-reaching consequences. It ought not arrive by happenstance or as the unforeseen result of hasty decisions about a special session.
Daudt was not wrong Wednesday when he said that legislative oversight of the Met Council and the CTIB is lacking. But efforts to provide more oversight — and to live up to the transit funding responsibility that legislative involvement implies — came to naught in the past two years. When the Legislature opted in 2015 to leave a comprehensive transportation bill on the table for 2016, it should have tackled thorny questions such as Metro Transit governance in the nine-month interim that ensued.
The Southwest light-rail project has been on the region’s drawing boards for more than a decade and has cleared nearly every hurdle it has faced. Its construction is scheduled to begin next year, propelled by nearly $900 million in federal funds. A chronic concern about transit governance should be addressed soon. But it’s a poor excuse for holding up either the next phase of rapid transit construction or a special session.