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House doesn't budge, leaving transportation negotiations in neutral

By Jonathan Avise
Interstate 94 near downtown St. Paul. House Photography file photo

House Republicans on Wednesday countered a Senate offer on long-term transportation funding, sticking close to their initial plan passed last year and again ruling out an increase to the state’s gas tax as a part of any comprehensive agreement.

The House’s latest offer to the conference committee on HF4 showed little movement toward a compromise position with the DFL-led Senate, continuing to rely heavily on a shift of motor vehicle-related sales tax revenues from the state’s General Fund toward road and bridge projects, as well as using one-time dollars from the state’s projected $900 million budget surplus.

It also proposes no new dollars for metro area transit, tying any future funding increases to major changes to Metropolitan Council and transit governance.

“This offer represents our core road and bridge offer from 2015,” said Rep. Tim Kelly (R-Red Wing), chair of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee. House Republicans, he added, have “stayed consistent in (their) priorities.”

Rep. Tim Kelly, chair of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, outlines a House offer during a May 11 meeting of the transportation conference committee. Sen. Scott Dibble, right, chair of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee, listens. Photo by Paul Battaglia

With less than 12 days until the Legislature must adjourn, the new offer still leaves House Republicans and Senate DFLers with a yawning gap to bridge if they're to strike a long-sought transportation deal.

Senate transportation committee chair Scott Dibble (DFL-Mpls) took a small step toward the House position in an offer last week, backing off his caucus’ proposal to institute a new wholesale fuel tax that would raise the state tax on gasoline by at least 16 cents per gallon, and instead pitching a 12-cent hike in the state’s current per-gallon gas tax.

Kelly reiterated Wednesday a gas tax is something his side of the aisle will refuse to consider as part of any agreement.

Dibble indicated he believed the House’s offer is essentially unchanged from its initial stance.

“I do feel like this offer is fairly non-responsive to our good faith offer,” he said following the hearing.

 

In the same ballpark?

Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL leaders said this week that transportation — with Department of Transportation studies showing more than $10 billion in road and bridge needs over the next decade —has to be resolved first before other big session pieces like taxes and bonding fall into place.

A member of the audience follows along with the House offer sheet during a May 11 meeting of the transportation conference committee. Photo by Paul Battaglia

But, despite Dibble saying the two sides are “kind of in the same ballpark,” the opposing plans still look very different.

The Republican-backed plan relies on redirecting motor vehicle-related tax revenue away from the state’s General Fund, identifying efficiencies in the MnDOT budget, and utilizing $300 million of the state’s projected $900 million budget surplus in 2017 to increase transportation funding.

Meanwhile, the DFL-backed Senate bill proposes to generate more dollars for roads, bridges and transit by phasing in a gas tax hike over three years, increasing tab fees, and expanding a metro area sales tax to fund transit projects.

The House’s latest offer still includes no long-term investment in metro area transitways, including the proposed Southwest Light Rail line that stands to lose federal funding without state dollars.

Instead, it calls for reforms to the Metropolitan Council that include staggered terms for commissioners, the inclusion of local elected officials on the council and elected officials on the council’s nominating committee.

The House offer also proposes changes to how Twin Cities transit projects and rail lines are financed, including requiring legislative approval for major transitways, eliminating state dollars for light rail capital and operation costs and increasing how much revenue Metro Transit collects from fares.

“Before we can even talk about new revenue for transit, we are adamant that we talk about reforms to the Met Council,” Kelly said. 

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