Lawmakers debate transportation at the Legislature

ST. PAUL -- The key to finishing the 2016 Minnesota legislative session remains short of the ignition switch.Legislative leaders say the key to wrapping up all major issues before the constitutional May 23 adjournment date is figuring out how to ...

Rep. Tim Kelly
Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing, left, and Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis talk Wednesday before a conference committee. (DON DAVIS | FORUM NEWS SERVICE)

ST. PAUL - The key to finishing the 2016 Minnesota legislative session remains short of the ignition switch.
Legislative leaders say the key to wrapping up all major issues before the constitutional May 23 adjournment date is figuring out how to infuse new money into transportation. Negotiators met Wednesday, adjourning after an hour with no sign they are ready to wrap up transportation issues. Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said after the transportation conference committee broke up that he expects legislative leaders to lay out “within a day or two” general spending guidelines that would allow transportation negotiators to finish their work.
“Once transportation comes together, all the other pieces will fall into place,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said
Monday, after he, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton met for their first negotiation session of the year.
One piece awaiting a transportation funding resolution is how to change the $42 billion, two-year budget lawmakers approved last year. Also in the mix are a public works funding bill and how much to cut Minnesotans’ taxes.
Transportation proposals call for using varying amounts of general state tax funds, borrowing money the same as needed for other public works projects. The plans also would use some of the state’s $900 million expected budget surplus, which also could be used for tax cuts.
With so much at stake, when transportation budget negotiators gathered Wednesday, more than just transportation advocates were watching.
More than 200 county officials sent a letter to legislators Wednesday urging lawmakers to pass a long-term transportation funding bill before they go home May 23.
“We need the Legislature to act this session on a transportation funding package for roads, bridges and transit that is comprehensive, regionally balanced, sustainable and dedicated,” said Roseau County Commissioner Jack Swanson, president of the Association of Minnesota Counties.
Without that complete funding package, he added, local government will face “challenges meeting basic needs like keeping our roadways safe for the public, relieving congestion and providing infrastructure that can withstand Minnesota’s harsh winters.”
Greater Minnesota city officials also want more transportation money.
“If there is one issue that unites mayors from all parts of the state and all political persuasions, it’s transportation,” Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski said. “We all want the Legislature to get serious about addressing greater Minnesota’s transportation needs.”
Dibble and House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said they are happy that Dayton, Daudt and Bakk have placed top priority on transportation.
Republicans who control the House offered their newest plan, which among other things would give townships more road money. It was in response to a Friday Senate Democratic proposal that reduced a gasoline tax increase from 16 cents a gallon to 12 and raised vehicle license fees.
The GOP plan calls for the state to increase road and bridge spending more than $6 billion in the next 10 years, with $1.3 billion coming from borrowed funds to be repaid with general tax money and another $1 billion to be repaid by transportation-specific revenues.
Republicans propose spending about $30 million a year from general tax funds for transportation each year, taking money away from other unspecified state programs.
The Republican plan would fund new rail crossings, with overpasses, in Moorhead, Red Wing and Coon Rapids. It would require railroads to provide more information on hazardous cargos with local public safety officials.
Dibble and other Democrats were upset that the Kelly plan did not fund transit projects. On Friday, Kelly told reporters that he could support transit funding, but Wednesday he said that funding can come only if there are changes in the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Twin Cities bus and rail operations.

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