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Election Day free rides bill survives bumpy hearing

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Offering free rides to the polls on Election Day may sound like a relatively simple, noncontroversial idea, but the House Government Operations Committee found out otherwise Thursday.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-Mpls) to require some public transit providers to offer free service on the day of the state’s general election met stiff resistance.

Members approved HF489, and referred it to the House Ways and Means Committee, but did so on a 9-8 roll-call vote along party lines. The companion, SF499, is sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope) and awaits action by the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee.

Dehn’s bill would include transit systems that receive operating assistance from the state. They include Metro Transit, some suburban providers and others around the state.

But Republicans raised concerns about people who live in areas not well served, or served at all, by public transit.

Rep. Jim Nash (R-Waconia) called the bill “grossly unfair” because cities in his district have no bus service. He said if it were to become law it would be purposely “disenfranchising” people who don’t have access to the rides.

Those concerns were echoed by Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River) who said it’s important that anything done is equitable across the state.

“We see a giant transportation network, including buses, trains and a pretty sophisticated transportation system, ready to be turned on in the metropolitan area,” Zerwas said. “In my neck of the woods, in Sherburne County, if someone wanted to use public transportation to go to the polls they could put in a call two or three days in advance … it just doesn’t work the same.”

Dehn said he understood the concerns and has a meeting scheduled with the Department of Transportation to see what else can be done to offer free rides more widely. He said the bill is meant to help people who don’t have cars or others who can help them vote, adding that the state also offered free transit during the 2014 general election and encountered very few problems.

“Just as we have beer companies supporting rides on St. Patrick’s Day, and other events, this is where we’re stepping forward as a state of Minnesota and saying that voting is important and we’re going to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to get to the polls,” Dehn said.

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