One can fairly chalk up the screw-up in the final minutes of the 2016 legislative session to confusion, haste, mistrust and/or ineptitude. But the Legislature’s 11th-hour failure to pass three of the year’s headliner bills — bonding, transportation and Real ID — is rooted in a bigger problem: The compromises that politically divided state governance requires have become exceedingly difficult to achieve.
Partisan entrenchment on several issues went deep at the 2016 Legislature. Republican unwillingness to raise the gas tax to pay for transportation met with DFL resistance to diverting existing revenue sources to highway funding. Republican opposition to an expansion of light-rail transit met with DFL insistence that transit be included in any transportation funding package. Republican opposition to providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants met with DFL desires for inclusivity and the public safety benefits of licensing every driver.
Despite those differences, legislators came close last weekend to finding a respectable patch of common ground. A decent $1 billion bonding bill coupled with $300 million in cash for highways and $62 million in highway bonding was in play Sunday — until within minutes of a midnight constitutional deadline, it wasn’t.
Lawmakers stumbled in a last-ditch attempt to bridge the partisan gap over light rail. The DFL-backed notion was to allow Hennepin County additional borrowing authority sufficient to finance on its own a requisite state-local match for the Southwest light-rail line.
That asks more of Hennepin County taxpayers than they should be required to bear for a regional economic asset. But allowing one or more metro counties to meet their transit needs with locally generated taxes — and seizing $900 million in available federal funds — should be something even rail-averse, fiscally conservative Republicans can accept.
In coming days, allowing county-based funding for transit should be the starting point for legislative negotiations. Those talks should lead to a special session to enact a bonding/transportation bill, preferably in ample time for the shovel-ready projects it funds to start before the 2016 construction season ends.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said Monday that he’s willing to consider calling a special session to finish the bonding and transportation work the Legislature did not complete. (He will defer the Real ID issue until 2017, he said.) But he’s in no hurry — and with the sole authority to call a special session, he’s in a position to drive a hard bargain.
Dayton made clear that he wants a mechanism for funding Southwest light rail to be included in a special session bill. He voiced other desires too, including more ample funding for the University of Minnesota than has been offered to date by the GOP House.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt said Monday he had hoped for a quick special session this week with an agenda confined to the bill the House tried to pass Sunday night, with little change. But legislators forfeited a goodly measure of control when their failure to compromise felled a major bill. Now they must either reckon with Dayton’s wishes, or face the voters next fall with no bonding or transportation bills to show for two years of effort. For Minnesota’s sake, they should opt for the former.