Will 2016 be the year for transportation at the state Capitol?
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and state leaders from both parties at the Capitol have included it on their priority list for the upcoming 10-week legislative session, but DFL leaders expressed some skepticism about their ability to find common ground on a long-term funding plan at a pre-session press briefing.
The 2016 legislative session kicks off Tuesday, March 8. It’s also a bonding year so lawmakers will consider what capital improvement projects to fund in a bonding bill.
Dayton said he continues to support the transportation funding proposal he outlined last year, which would raise $6 billion for the state’s transportation system over the next decade by a 6.5 percent sales tax on gasoline (at the wholesale level) and an increase in car registration and license fees.
He said he wants to see a long-term funding plan that doesn’t rely on money from the state’s general fund. “I’m pessimistic we’ll get a meaningful transportation bill,” Dayton said during the Feb. 25 press conference.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, a Republican from Crown, said he was more optimistic about the prospects of finding common ground on transportation. He said the focus should be on roads and bridges and said transit doesn’t have broad support throughout the state.
Both Daudt and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, a Republican from Eden Prairie, said the general fund and the state budget surplus — now projected at $900 million — should be tapped for transportation needs.
“We have the resources to pay for this,” Daudt said. “If we focus on what matters — roads and bridges — the funds are there and we can solve it.”
Last year, Republican leaders proposed raising $7 billion for roads and bridges by drawing on motor vehicle-tax revenue in the general fund and the projected budget surplus.
Senate Majority Tom Bakk, a DFLer from Cook, said he’s opposed to having transportation projects have to compete with other items funded by the general fund like education. In tight budget years, transportation will lose out to those other priorities, he said.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, a DFLer who lives in the Lynnhurst neighborhood of Minneapolis, also criticized Daudt for his lack of support for transit. He said it’s supported by people throughout Minnesota, not just the metro area and said it’s only controversial in the “Tea Party wing of the Republican party.”
In a recent interview with the Southwest Journal, Rep. Frank Hornstein, the ranking DFL member of the House Transportation committee, said he’ll continue to push for a long-term funding plan for roads, bridges and transit.
“In order to move forward there’s going to have to be some compromises made,” he said, adding he has “cause for optimism” based on the relationship forged by DFL Sen. Scott Dibble and Republican Rep. Tim Kelly, who lead transportation committees in their respective chambers.
“They have been meeting and talking,” he said. “I think there’s a mutual commitment to move forward, but that’s not always reflective of the leadership.”
As for other priorities for the session, Dayton said he’ll continue to push for more funding for early education and strategies for making higher education more affordable. Water quality is another top issue.
Dayton held a water summit in St. Paul on Feb. 27 to call attention to challenges facing the state’s water supplies.
Hornstein, who also serves on the House Environment and National Resources Policy and Finance Committee, said clean water has risen to the top of the agenda for many leaders.
He said he’ll be advocating for more accountability from the chemical industry to prevent pollution and investments in wastewater treatment and infrastructure.
“The Flint, Michigan example shows why this is important,” he said.
Republican leaders Daudt and Hann said tax relief is a top priority in addition to transportation funding.
Bakk said he’s also focused on a passing a “robust bonding bill” in addition to making headway on transportation and additional investments in education.
Thissen of Minneapolis said he shared Dayton and Bakk’s priorities and also added campaign finance to his list of top priorities.
He has proposed an amendment to the state Constitution called the DISCLOSE Act — which stands for Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections. The amendment would close a loophole that currently exempts political groups from reporting spending on “issue-based” communications, even if they are supporting or opposing a particular candidate.
If approved by a majority of both the House and Senate, the measure would appear on the ballot in November.