Here’s a cautiously hopeful note for state government’s new year: The issue most responsible for tripping up the 2015-16 Legislature — light-rail transit — isn’t likely to be back at the Capitol in 2017. Instead, it appears to be moving to a county courthouse near you, if you’re in the metro area. And it might have you paying higher sales taxes before the year is out.
That at least is the plan that’s being teed up by the leaders of the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB). That’s a nine-year-old, five-county government entity most Minnesotans have never heard of, even those who know well its biggest accomplishment, Metro Transit’s Green Line.
Three of CTIB’s counties — Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington — want to build several more new transit lines in the next decade. The odd wrinkle: It appears that the most plausible way to for them to proceed involves dissolving CTIB and going it either alone or as a voluntary cluster.
That’s because of an unusual feature of the Legislature’s 2008 transportation bill. In addition to delivering the only gas tax increase since 1988, that bill allowed the seven metro counties to form CTIB. It would collect a 0.25 percent sales tax within their counties to be spent building and operating new Metro Transit lines. Five counties took the bait; Carver and Scott declined.
The same bill offered the state’s other counties the chance to impose up to a 0.5 percent sales tax on their residents for transportation purposes. About two dozen counties have done so to date.
From the start, CTIB’s 0.25 percent sales tax was faulted as too skimpy to accomplish the transit buildout on Metro Transit drawing boards. But despite support from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, efforts at the Legislature to allow CTIB to add 0.25 percentage points to that tax ran into a brick wall of Republican opposition.
Last session, even allowing Hennepin County to contribute more of its own funds to the next transit line in the queue, Southwest, was rejected by the House Republican majority. They refused to bend the 2008 bill’s rule that CTIB counties can spend no more than 10 percent of their own funds on CTIB-funded projects. That was the hangup that snagged a major bonding bill in the final minutes of the regular session.
But what if CTIB goes away?
Pursuit of an answer to that question has occupied CTIB chair/Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin since the gavel fell on the 2016 session. He walked out of the Capitol in the wee hours of May 23 muttering that the “transactional cost” of obtaining state participation was too high. That sentiment didn’t change when a way forward was found last summer for Southwest.
It appears that if all five counties agree — and that’s a big “if” — CTIB can disband. The five counties can then exercise the same local sales tax option that other counties have had since 2008. They can forge joint powers agreements with one another to share project costs. And they can put as much or as little as they like of their other resources (aka property tax receipts) into transit.
McLaughlin has his work cut out for him in the next few months to get all five counties on board with disbanding — not to mention to get his fellow Hennepin County commissioners to back a sales tax increase if and when CTIB disappears. But he doesn’t expect any roadblocks to come from the Capitol.
He argues that he’s doing the Legislature’s new Republican majorities a favor. “We are removing the single biggest obstacle to a state transportation bill,” he said last week. His plan would get state government out of the business of building new rail and BRT Metro Transit lines.
And what else? That’s the long-range question that should be occurring to legislators — especially from Greater Minnesota.
If rich metro counties discover that they can do better by taxing and serving themselves rather than participating in the collective actions of state and regional government, will new transit lines be the end of it? Or will they seek to go their own way to provide for other infrastructure, or education, or human services?
Hennepin County constitutes 22.5 percent of the state’s population and 29.2 percent of its tax revenue. Nonpartisan House Research reported last year that in 2012, state taxes paid by residents of the seven metro counties comprised 63.6 percent of the state’s total receipts, while those counties comprised 54.3 percent of the state’s population. Nearly all of Minnesota’s population growth from 2010 to 2015 occurred in the metro area.
Those stats should muffle any impulse to cheer CTIB’s demise.
McLaughlin said that he isn’t trying to withdraw from regionalism on transit. “We’re just trying to move our feet.
“If there’s been a failure, it’s the Legislature undercutting our ability to move forward as a region. The legislators who’ve stood in our way aren’t seeing the real danger: The lack of investment in infrastructure can kill economic growth.”
No light-rail fight this year might make for a more productive legislative session. But the longstanding goal of a “One State” transportation funding boost that provides for both roads and transit, in both the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota, seems to be slipping out of reach. And the powerful idea that this is One State is at risk of sliding away with it.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at email@example.com.