A major transportation funding bill pushed by GOP legislators that would divert money from light rail to Twin Cities buses advanced Monday night in the Minnesota House.

The bill would prohibit spending $69 million in a special transit fund on light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit, which uses dedicated lanes. The money comes from a quarter-cent sales tax imposed on five metro counties for rail and bus rapid transit.

The initiative, which passed the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee on a mostly partisan vote and was sent to the Ways and Means Committee, underscores the division between some GOP legislators, long critical of rail transit, and DFLers who support such services in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Instead of the $69 million being used over the next two years on rail or bus rapid transit, it would replace $51 million cut from general fund money for regular bus operations.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who runs an agency that distributes sales tax money for expanding transit, said the proposal would "steal local sales tax" money to help balance the state budget.

But Republicans defended tapping sales tax money for the bus system. "In the dire situation we find ourselves, this is an avenue we need to explore," said Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, referring to the projected budget deficit.

Supporters said the bill would provide more money for overall transit operations, but the Metropolitan Council and DFLers argue that GOP figures are based on unrealistic expectations of motor vehicle sales tax revenue.

The bill could deny funding to plan the Southwest Corridor light-rail project running from Minneapolis to the southwest suburbs, and could force the Met Council to borrow money to meet commitments to the Central Corridor light-rail project between Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns.

"We know this will require fare increases and service reductions," said Wes Kooistra, chief financial officer at the Met Council.

Sales tax revenue from Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Washington and Anoka counties goes to the Met Council, which uses it to pay for transit. The bill says the council could transfer money from a housing fund to transit if needed.

While restricting spending on operations, the bill gives priority to paying debt service on bonds for construction projects like the Central Corridor.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504