Gov. Mark Dayton, his fellow Democrats and Republicans alike all have spent months raising expectations that a big, bold deal could be struck this year at the Capitol to get more state money flowing for road projects all over Minnesota. Now those hopes are crashing against the complex politics of transportation spending.
Last week Dayton asked lawmakers to raise state taxes on gasoline and driver’s license renewals, and boost the state sales tax by half a cent in the seven-county metro area, to raise $11 billion in new money for roads, bridges and public transit projects over the next decade. The state Senate’s DFL majority is seeking a similarly large spending injection, as Democrats warn that an increasingly dilapidated transportation infrastructure threatens economic growth.
The governor has said a big transportation spending boost is one of his top two legislative priorities this year. Likewise, Republicans hold a new House majority thanks in part to a crop of candidates who vowed to make road and bridge repairs a bigger spending priority.
“People are still e-mailing me and saying, ‘You make sure we get our roads and bridges taken care of,’ ” said Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, who unseated a DFLer in a swing district in November. The transportation plan from House Republicans focuses on roads and bridges, but contains a spending boost that is less than a fifth of what Dayton wants on a yearly basis. It has no tax increases, would reach four years into the future rather than 10, and has no money set aside for transit projects, a longtime punching bag for the GOP.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, insists he is optimistic that this legislative session could produce a transportation bill to make both Democrats and Republicans happy. But the final product he envisions sounds nothing like Dayton’s ambitious plan, which would lift pump prices by about 16 cents a gallon at the current cost of gas — and more if oil prices rise.
‘The public ... is not ready’
Daudt notes that “the last time we raised the gas tax was 2008, and it was 5 cents per gallon, and it was 10 years after the previous increase. Knowing it took 10 years to pass 5 cents, thinking that it’s going to take a few months to pass 16 cents is unrealistic. And the public obviously is not ready for that sort of thing.”
Dayton has made it clear that a successful transportation deal must establish permanent new money streams for transportation projects. The Republican approach has been more modest, resting largely on using a slice of the projected budget surplus to escalate road and bridge spending over the next four years, freeing more dollars by devising as-yet-unspecified administrative savings at the Department of Transportation, and tapping the state’s borrowing capacity to issue construction bonds for more road- and bridge-building.
Those proposals are “slogans, not solutions,” Dayton said. “It takes some political courage to tackle this problem, and enact this program, and that’s why transportation funding is very difficult to obtain, even when it’s urgently needed.”
In fact, the exact size of the need itself has become a sticking point between the DFL and GOP.
Some facts are undeniable: More than half of Minnesota’s roads are more than 50 years old, and 40 percent of its bridges have been around for more than 40 years. Minnesota has the nation’s fifth-largest highway system, but conditions rank in the bottom third.
A bipartisan panel of transportation experts that Dayton assembled in 2012 calculated that keeping the current transportation network usable will require $6 billion in new money over the next decade. But one month into the legislative session, Republicans have begun openly questioning that figure.
“We hear $6 billion. We hear $11 billion from the governor,” said Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “That’s the issue, and I think Minnesota would really appreciate if we take a step back, we get all their representatives to agree on a number, and then absolutely we’ll talk about funding.”
Kelly said he would like to see the Legislature pass the Republicans’ more modestly scaled plan this year, and wait until next year to tackle a more comprehensive funding solution. But his state Senate counterpart, DFL Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis, said a final reckoning with the size of the need should not be delayed.
“Otherwise you’re back here in a year, you’re back here in two years, you’re back here in five years, you’re back here in 10 years, fighting the same fight,” said Dibble, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee.
Calling the current House Republican proposal a “temporary Band-Aid,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said the issue must be resolved this year.
“It won’t get done in 2016. If it doesn’t happen this year, I think the conversation on transportation will have to wait until 2017,” said Bakk, DFL-Cook. All 201 legislators are up for re-election in November 2016. But, Bakk added, for the issue to heat up this year, everyday Minnesotans will have to get more vocal about what they want.
Bakk did identify one piece of common ground with House Republicans. “I actually am somebody who supports bonding for transportation,” he said. “I just think that the taxpayers right now, this year, shouldn’t have to pay for the cost of building a bridge that’s going to be used by people for decades.”
Indeed, the politics of transportation spending often skews traditional party alliance at the Capitol. Republican and Democratic coalitions get jumbled by geography, reflecting the vastly different transportation priorities across urban, suburban and rural regions. Even if Dayton is unable to build momentum for his transportation tax hikes, Republicans who want to claim any progress on transportation at all will probably need to make some concession to the strong support for increased transit spending among Dayton and Twin Cities DFLers.
That’s going to be a tough sell.
“I’ve got Highway 14 in my district from Owatonna to Waseca, it’s 42 years old and we’ve been trying to get it replaced forever,” said Rep. Brian Daniels, a new House Republican from Faribault. He noted the project needs about $140 million to $160 million in state funds — not that much more than the $125 million that’s needed from the state treasury to build the planned Southwest Light Rail line.
“I would really love to see money spent there rather than adding a couple of cars to light-rail transit,” Daniels said. He opposes Dayton’s proposed gas tax and license tab hikes — but would Daniels vote for a hypothetical political deal that included money for both roads and bridges in his district and Twin Cities transit?
“If you asked me today, probably not,” Daniels said. “But when the time comes, there’s always got to be a compromise someplace that everyone can live with. Some of this just needs to get done, and if we have to give a little to get it done — I think Governor Dayton is fair, and I think he has the best interests of Minnesota in mind, too.”