We are now in the final 30 days of the 2016 legislative session, yet the waters of two very important subjects – taxes and transportation – mainly have remained calm.
The House is bringing a series of omnibus bills to the floor this week, covering a wide range of issues from K-12 education, to agriculture and public safety. Meanwhile, taxes and transportation remain on the back burner largely because the Senate has been holding up work on those issues by kneeling on bills the House passed last year on those subjects.
Tax proposals from the House include valuable provisions such as phasing out the state tax on Social Security retirement benefits. There also is tax relief for middle-class families, college students, veterans, farmers, job creators and innovators. The most significant part of the package – a new Minnesota personal or dependent tax exemption – could save a middle-class family of four more than $500 over the next two years.
Good transportation measures that provide stable, long-term funding also are waiting in the wings. People throughout our state agree our roads and bridges need significant work.
The cornerstone of the House plan dedicates taxes Minnesotans already are paying on car parts, auto repairs, vehicle leases, and rental cars to a new Transportation Stability Fund. By adding in a portion of the $900 million budget surplus and bonding, the Republican plan would fix 15,500 lane miles of roads and 330 bridges statewide.
The insistence of the governor and some that we apply a wholesale tax on crude oil that would raise the gas tax by at least 16 cents – and up to 30 cents or more – per gallon is an overriding factor in the Senate letting the air out of the tax bill and the transportation bill last year and possibly this year. That issue needs to be resolved if and when action begins on those packages this year, but one thing remains unchanged: There is no support in the House to raise the gas tax. Two-thirds of all Minnesotans oppose the gas tax. A 74-percent majority of rural Minnesotans, where public transportation is mostly non-existent, oppose the gas tax.
Minnesotans absorbed the largest tax increase in state history just a few years ago and the state has a $900 million surplus. Any transportation proposal this year seeking to gain more taxpayer dollars in a time of surplus can expect to meet resistance. It is unreasonable for the state to raise the gas tax by what would be a historic amount – and pinch low-income citizens the hardest in its regressivity – at a time the state already has $900 million in tax overcollections and well-stocked $1.75 billion reserve account.
The money exists to improve our roads and bridges without raising taxes if we are able to stick to those priorities. The problem is government often lacks discipline and the ability to focus. If you make everything a priority, in reality nothing is a priority. In this case, legislators are looking to siphon transportation dollars from roads and bridges in order to build more light-rail lines.
It is hard to justify spending billions more in tax dollars on building more trains or expanding upon new or existing programs when our roads and bridges are in disrepair. The priority – there's that word again – should be to maintain our infrastructure before we start taking on projects that will spread our tax dollars even more thin now and commit us to additional upkeep costs.
My focus will remain on roads and bridges. I personally have authored legislation in two separate forms that provides $15 million for Highway 12 improvements that would make one of Minnesota's most dangerous stretches of road safer to travel. Local citizens are very interested in this issue and I continue receiving requests for status updates. The best I can say now is the Highway 12 bills remain active in the process and are available to come to the floor for full House vote in a final transportation bill. I remain hopeful we will get to the finish line this session, so stay tuned and I will keep you posted as things develop between now and the Legislature's May 23 adjournment date.
Rep. Jerry Hertaus