Much has been said in the Star Tribune’s opinion pages the last few days about Southwest light rail and its role in sinking a special session for middle-class tax relief and a transportation-heavy bonding bill. On Thursday, it was appalling to watch Gov. Mark Dayton hastily convene a meeting to attempt to advance the controversial train anyway, without regard for Minnesotans waiting on the tax relief and road and bridge repairs he buried just days earlier.
The decision by Dayton and the Democrats to walk away from tax relief and transportation funding over a controversial metro-area train has left Minnesotans scratching their heads. As chairs of the House tax and bonding committees, we’re equally frustrated.
Democrats claim that it’s just the metro area that would pay for the Southwest line, and that’s simply not true. Minnesotans across the state would be forced to pay for the tens of millions in ongoing operating losses. At no time did Democrats propose a plan to fund construction and operating costs solely with local dollars. They say we need the line to ease congestion. However, the environmental-impact statement shows that this $2 billion train will have very little impact on travel times for commuters. In fact, the average weekly total transit times from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie are identical whether or not Southwest light rail is built.
In addition, the project remains subject to a lawsuit that could derail it entirely. Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Council chair informed Dayton that funding from the federal government was on hold until the “middle of 2017” and that the Federal Transit Administration refused to accelerate the funding agreement because “they are concerned that the litigation risk is still there” until a judge rules on a lawsuit that won’t begin until September 2017.
Last year, Dayton himself said he would not fund the project until legal issues were resolved, resulting in the governor signing a budget canceling $29 million in unspent Southwest line funding. Furthermore, the line wasn’t in the governor’s or the Senate DFL’s bonding requests this year and received no official hearings this session.
All of this leads us to believe Democrats’ recent light-rail fever is manufactured at the expense of middle-class Minnesotans.
Why are Democrats throwing away tax relief and safer roads that benefit many for a controversial project that only benefits a few?
The fact is: Dayton could call a special session tomorrow to pass half a billion dollars in permanent, middle-class tax relief. Speaker Kurt Daudt asked the governor to consider a special session to re-pass just the bipartisan tax relief bill. Dayton said no.
The tax relief bill passed with support from 89 percent of the Legislature and, surprisingly, was vetoed by the governor. It included tax relief for farmers, college graduates paying back student loans, families with child care expenses, relief for hometown businesses and much more.
It included badly needed assistance for Madelia, a southern Minnesota town devastated by a fire earlier this year, and an increase in local government aid for communities large and small in all corners of the state. Dayton visited Madelia, witnessed the destruction and struggling residents, and promised them help would come from the state. As representatives from southern Minnesota, we find this broken promise particularly disturbing.
The day after the 2016 session ended, Dayton pledged: “I’m not going to hold tax cuts … hostage to other considerations.” Unfortunately, he’s gone back on his word, and thousands of Minnesota families will not get the tax relief they need.
The transportation-focused bonding bill is another area where legislators are largely in agreement. Both sides agree that more than $700 million in road and bridge funding would be good for communities across the state to improve road safety and reduce congestion. Republicans support funding for crucial projects like Hwy. 14 and Hwy. 23, and were disappointed to learn that House Democrats led by Minneapolis Minority Leader Paul Thissen wanted to remove these priorities from any special-session bill.
In addition to roads and bridges, the bonding bill invested in smart-transit options like the Orange Line bus rapid transit connecting Minneapolis, Richfield, Bloomington and Burnsville and upgrades to the transit hub at Mall of America.
Taking your ball and going home when there is broad, bipartisan agreement on so many issues is not leadership. We say: Let’s be Minnesotans. Let’s work together and pass what we all know are good bills for Minnesota families and communities.
Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, is chair of the House Taxes Committee. Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, is chair of the House Capital Investment Committee.