Minn. Transportation chair calls upon business leaders to support funding increase for ‘vital links’
WILLMAR — The head of the House Transportation Finance Committee told a group of Willmar business and community leaders Friday that their past support helped get a gas tax increase approved in 2008 and their support will be needed again if another increase is sought this year.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said improving roads and bridges is crucial to economic development in rural Minnesota but additional revenue is needed to make that happen.
The 2008 passage of a 5-cent gas tax increase happened because of a unique coalition of “business and labor, metro and greater Minnesota, Republicans and Democrats coming together,” Hornstein told members of the Willmar Area Chamber of Commerce’s public policy committee.
“And that’s the kind of coalition we’re going to need to move the state forward,” said Hornstein, who was in Willmar Friday, along with fellow Democrats, House Majority Leader Erin Murphy of St. Paul, Sen. Lyle Koenen of Clara City and Rep. Mary Sawatzky of Willmar.
The 5-cent gas tax increase was actually half the amount of the original request, said Hornstein, who hopes to get approval of “a modest bill that gets to the levels we wanted and needed in 2008 even though we know, four years later, the needs are even greater.”
Hornstein also announced the outline of a new transportation program he intends to propose that could help spur economic growth in greater Minnesota.
Dubbed “Corridors of Commerce,” the program would include competitive state grants, augmented with local funding, that would target transportation routes identified as vital links for regional and statewide economic growth.
State Highway 23 would be a prime example of a corridor of commerce, he said.
Hornstein said the Minnesota Department of Transportation currently has a transportation economic program that targets trunk highway interchanges.
His new program would focus on entire corridors, such as Highway 23 from Willmar to St. Cloud, which still has two seven-mile sections that have only two lanes.
A final transportation package will include recommendations from the governor’s transportation advisory task force, the governor’s budget and input from business and community leaders.
“You really have a lot to say about this bill,” said Hornstein, who thanked the local and state chamber of commerce organizations for their past support of the gas tax increase to fund transportation improvements.
“We need to cobble this coalition together again,” he said.
Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen, a member of the governor’s transportation advisory task force, encouraged the legislators to take a “holistic” approach to the budget but said transportation funding needs to be increased because inflation has more than wiped out any financial gains with the past gas tax increase.
“We’re going backwards,” said Madsen, who called increased transportation funding and improved roads the “lifeblood” that draws Minnesotans together.
The legislators at Friday’s meeting also fielded questions about the governor’s proposed budget, sales tax increases and business-to-business taxes.
Willmar businessman Dave Baker said he hoped proposed new revenues would not fall on the backs of businesses that generate jobs.
Increasing tax revenues means taking money away from the private sector that is responsible for economic growth, said Loren Corle, a businessman from Willmar, who also asked the legislators to carefully weigh the impacts of the budget.
When asked about cuts to the budget, Murphy said the Legislature has “cut very deeply” in recent years, which has “shortchanged the future of the state.” Those cuts have hurt “real people,” she said.
Murphy said “Minnesotans want us to look at the budget as a whole” and when the budget is finally approved, it will include revenue increases and budget cuts.
She said there will be considerable public input, debate and thought put into the process before the budget is completed.
When asked why House agriculture committees had been combined with other committees, like environment, Murphy said that practice has been done in the past and that criticism of that now is purely political and partisan. She said agriculture will have its own budget. “Agriculture will be well-represented,” said Murphy.