Passage of transportation bill called ‘historic’

Some are calling it historic, others shameful.

Nonetheless, state House and Senate members voted Feb. 25 to override a veto of the omnibus $6.6 billion transportation bill, making it law.

By October, Minnesotans can expect to see up to an 8-and-a-half-cent increase at the pump. The increase is made up of 5 cents for roads and bridges and up to 3-and-a-half cents to pay debt incurred financing transportation projects, officials said.

“We have not had a gas tax increase in 20 years, and had not had a comprehensive transportation funding bill happen for a very long time,” said state Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B). “Not only are we infusing $6.6 billion over next 10 years, the way it happened, with the dramatic override few people expected, made it historic.”

The DFL majority Legislature’s override of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto was the first of the Republican governor’s tenure.

In the state House of Representatives, six Republicans joined DFL ranks to overturn the veto, 91-41, providing the needed “supermajority.” In the state Senate, the vote was 47-20.

Gov. Pawlenty said in a prepared statement that passage of the bill signaled increases in license tabs, sales, car rental and vehicle purchase taxes.

“The DFL-controlled Legislature’s override of this veto shows they’re clearly out-of-touch with Minnesotans who are facing rising gas prices, heating costs and other expenses in tough economic times,” Pawlenty said. “Raising taxes is always the DFL’s go-to solution and that’s bad for Minnesota’s families and our economy.”

The state Legislature had not increased the gas tax in 20 years.

Aside from the gas tax, the new law includes provisions for a $25 tax credit for low-income residents to help offset the gas tax, 40 state troopers and a United Partnership Agreement (UPA) for rapid bus lines throughout the metro.

Also included is a quarter-cent sales tax increase would affect taxpayers from seven counties — particularly Hennepin – in the Twin Cities metro.

Hornstein said the sales tax would go, in part, toward funding an express bus line from Lakeville to Minneapolis by the end of 2008, and benefit the Central (Minneapolis to St. Paul) and Southwest (Minneapolis to Eden Priarie) Light Rail projects.

“The key thing is … what we were able to accomplish with a one-fourth cent sales tax is we [will be] able to build a system” by 2020, Hornstein said.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said transportation funding is much needed as the state’s population continues to grow.

“Choosing leadership over partisanship … the Legislature stood strong for a transportation solution that will help strengthen our economy and grow needed jobs in our state,” Rybak said in a Feb. 25 statement. “Facing economic uncertainty and 1 million more people expected to move to our region over the next two decades, the Legislature put years of political divide aside and instead chose to stand up for a fair and balanced solution to our transportation neglect.”

An index, which would have allowed the gas tax to fluctuate along with inflation, was excluded, Hornstein said. Hornstein said he saw no point in waiting any longer.

“It’s simply pennywise and pound-foolish to wait,” he said. “The governor vetoed a similar bill in 2005. Think of what could have been completed in that time. I think that time for procrastination is long over.”

The transportation bill was passed 10 working days into the Legislative session.

“It moved very quickly,” Hornstein said. “I think … something this far-reaching happens once every few decades."

While there wasn’t as much question in the state Senate that the transportation bill would be overridden, Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60) said it wasn’t easy.

"Anything worth doing is never easy," Dibble said. "It was no cake walk."

Dibble said he, personally, has vested 15 years — including work at Kingfield neighborhood level — organizing the city’s transportation expansion. More recently, Dibble spent innumerable hours hashing out compromises and understandings with fellow citizens and state senators, raising resources and attending field hearings.

His efforts, he said, culminated with discussions alongside Rep. Hornstein and Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-60A) late Wednesday night trying to "tip the scales."

Dibble said he has received "dozens" of congratulatory messages from Southwest residents, and "one or two" that were against the legislation.

"They’re extremely happy because folks in Southwest Minneapolis really see the benefit of sustainable transit, and environmental consequences if it went unchanged," said Dibble, who drives a Ford Escape Hybrid.

When asked what stands out most about the bill, Dibble said its long-term benefits.

"What feels really good is our obligation to the coming generation, and finally being able to do something that has a long-term benefit for now and into the future," Dibble said. "We’ve been able to enjoy fruits of the generation before us put forward, now’s our turn to step up and do the same."