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Serious work begins on Minnesota transportation funding

The Minnesota Capitol building remains under renovation as the May 23 legislative session adjournment date nears. ( DON DAVIS | FORUM NEWS SERVICE)

ST. PAUL — At least they are talking.

State leaders expanded budget talks Tuesday to deal with major money issues remaining before the Minnesota Legislature adjourns Monday. Talks had focused on transportation funding, but facing the adjournment deadline negotiators began to also discuss public works funding, tax cuts and budget changes.

Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders met behind closed doors Tuesday afternoon and night.

“We are talking,” Dayton said during a late-afternoon break in the negotiations. “I can’t say we are making progress.”

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said no overall budget deal was met Tuesday night.

Daudt and Dayton said talks included most of the major issues remaining to be decided before Sunday midnight, the latest the state Constitution allows lawmakers to pass bills.

Legislators who were not involved in the talks said they felt that, as Daudt has said, if transportation funding decisions could be made, other issues will fall into place.

So even as the focus expanded to other areas, the brightest spotlight shone on how to increase transportation spending $600 million a year for the next decade. That is what the experts say is needed to keep Minnesota roads and bridges in decent shape.

Republicans who control the House announced Tuesday their latest plan, which would take $300 million from the state budget surplus, increase tab fees $100 million a year and borrow $200 million. Another $250 million also could be borrowed.

The newest offer incorporates a quarter of a tab fee increase Dayton suggested on Monday and $100 million more in surplus spending. Dayton did not call for new borrowing, and said the GOP plan calls the $200 million new money even though the state already borrows that much.

Daudt said work on the state’s roads and bridges is the top priority and something all sides can agree to accomplish. He suggested setting aside discussion about transit, especially light rail service in the Twin Cities, until a deal is reached on road and bridge funding.

Dayton criticized Republican opposition to transit funding, particularly a light rail project in the southwest Twin Cities. “My own view is if they are going to kill Southwest Light Rail, they need to be honest about what the alternative is.”

Dayton accused Republicans of opposing the rail line because it is unpopular in greater Minnesota, where the battle for control of next year’s Legislature is expected to be hard fought.

Daudt, Dayton, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, say they want details of each spending measure worked out in public by House-Senate conference committees. However, Dayton and legislative leaders first must decide overall spending limits for each general spending item.

Besides those three leaders, Tuesday’s meeting included for the first time this year House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. Other key legislators also were at the table.

On transportation, the $300 million Republicans would take from other parts of the state budget would come from the $900 million budget surplus next year. If the surplus dwindles, their 10-year program calls for the money to come from unspecified existing programs.

Daudt said that the plan includes language that no one’s license tab fees would rise from year to year on the same vehicle. However, new vehicle tab fees would go up.

“More than half of the cars on the roads will pay less,” Daudt said.

House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said $250 million on top of the rest of the plan would come by the state selling bonds. However, bonding Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said that number remains under negotiations.

Torkelson is to present an $800 million public works bonding bill Wednesday.

Daudt long has said the House bonding bill would be $600 million, but Tuesday announced a $200 million bump. Senators failed by a single vote to pass a $1.5 billion bill, while Dayton proposed a $1.4 billion one.

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