By refusing to mince words, Legislative Auditor James Nobles performed laudable public service this week. The fiercely nonpartisan Nobles described the consequences of continued refusal to spend more money on the state's rapidly deteriorating transportation network.
"The overall picture is not good, and parts are downright grim," he said of the condition of the state's roads and bridges. The state has borrowed to build in the past five years, leaving repairs undone, the auditor's report said. Soon, the state's Department of Transportation "will not be able to meet its core goals without additional funding."
Today, the Legislature's DFL majorities will bring to the House and Senate floors their latest attempt to remedy what is rapidly becoming a crisis. Like two previous attempts, it's a big bill -- $7.8 billion over 10 years -- and, since it relies on tax increases, it's almost certainly headed for a veto by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
This year, a veto should not be the last act in the transportation funding drama. Whether via an override or a subsequent bill, the 2008 Legislature has a duty to arrest the decay in infrastructure upon which the whole state depends.
Like most major money bills at the Legislature, the bill on the floors today was shaped by dozens of compromises. Few will see it as ideal. This newspaper does not. We do not welcome an increase in the state's total tax burden, particularly a regressive one, at a time when many Minnesota families are struggling. We would challenge the bill's DFL authors to further soften its impact on taxpayers, especially low- and middle-income earners.
But Minnesota no longer can afford to hold out for policy perfection on transportation. As the auditor's report documents, the condition of the state's roads is markedly declining; traffic congestion is worsening; follow-up to bridge inspections is lagging.
The metro transit fiscal situation may be more dire: Despite record increases in ridership last year, service reductions and fare increases will be in the offing soon if the state does not increase transit funding this year.
All of this is taking a mounting toll, measured in terms of public safety, air quality and economic vitality. The unfairest tax -- the property tax -- is bearing a growing share of transportation load, as cities and counties repair roads that the state neglects. Property tax relief is one way to offset the burden that the transportation bill would impose on taxpayers.
We also welcome the tax reform projects launched first by the Legislature and more recently by the governor. The state needs to set priorities and avoid solutions that rely only on taxes and spending, a common DFL strategy, or the no-new-taxes approach so often used by Republicans, whose own attempt at a bill relying on borrowing and budget cuts was initially rejected Wednesday.
A boost in transportation funding is unfinished business from the 1990s. In the 20 years since Minnesota last raised its gasoline tax, 47 other states have followed suit. Inflation has eroded by more than half the buying power of the 20 cents per gallon Minnesota imposed in 1988.
That's why the case for today's transportation bill is often couched in the language of "catch-up." But there's something more behind those words. There's a Minnesota standard of quality public services that this state once met, and should still aspire to achieve.
Have Minnesota's standards slipped? Does this state still aim to provide the public infrastructure and services that undergird a quality of life that's enviable among the states, and widely shared among its people? Or will it settle for less?