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House, Senate restart transportation talks

By Jonathan Avise
Rep. Tim Kelly, left, chair of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee and Sen. D. Scott Dibble, chair of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee, talk with the media following a joint committee meeting that included a review of the status of the conference committee report on HF4, the omnibus transportation policy and finance bill, from last session. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Is 2016 the year Minnesota lawmakers strike a deal to pump more funding into the state’s creaking transportation system?

The House and Senate transportation committees met Monday to re-start the process of reaching an agreement, with lawmakers voicing optimism ahead of a legislative session that again has a long-term transportation funding solution atop lawmakers’ to-do list.

With studies projecting a roughly $6 billion transportation funding shortfall over the next decade, the debate has not been over whether more dollars are needed for the nation’s fifth-largest system of roads and bridges, but rather over how to pay for it.

Joint House/Senate transportation committee discussion of HF4

“We do realize in the process here the end result is going to be based on compromise,” said Rep. Tim Kelly (R-Red Wing), chair of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, adding later: “That is why we’re here.”

Monday’s hearing, however, also offered a reminder of just how far apart differing plans the two chambers passed in 2015 are.

The Republican-backed House plan would raise an additional $7 billion for roads and bridges over the next decade in part by redirecting motor vehicle-related tax revenue away from the state’s General Fund, identifying efficiencies in the Department of Transportation budget, and utilizing some of the state’s projected $1.2 billion budget surplus.

Meanwhile, the DFL-backed package the Senate passed last spring proposes to raise roughly $11 billion for roads, bridges and transit by instituting a new gas tax and expanding a metro area transit-dedicated sales tax from one-quarter to three-quarters of a cent.

Despite the differences, Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls), the minority lead on the transportation committee, said he believes both sides are committed to a achieving a long-term solution this session.

“I think a compromise could be in reach,” he said.

The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene March 8, and must adjourn by May 23. That leaves just more than 10 weeks to try to succeed where lawmakers could not last spring, a big reason, Kelly said, for jump-starting the process with Monday’s hearing.

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