During each biennial legislative session, the first-year efforts are committed to fully funding state budget operations for the next biennium. Last year, in 2015, much of the necessary legislation in budgeting was completed. Although we had hoped to accomplish more last year, the session ended without a comprehensive transportation bill or a tax bill, largely due to disagreement with the Senate for the need of additional revenue – mainly a gasoline tax increase.
The House position has always been that we have adequate revenues, but establishing priorities on how we spend it should be first considered before taking more of Minnesotans' hard-earned treasure. For example, the state of Florida has similar all-funds and general-funds budgets when compared with Minnesota, but serves four times the population – nearly 20 million people. It always seems easier to take more of your money than it is to really cull out programs which are not working or are inefficient.
We returned this session committed to having a tax bill and a transportation and a bonding bill. This session, there were more than $5 billion in bonding requests for consideration and inclusion in a bonding bill. The House entertained all of these requests and needed to prioritize that which would be included in a bonding bill.
Although it may be claimed the bonding bill was not delivered until the last week, we must remember this session was only 10 weeks long. Moving legislation through the process requires meeting certain committee deadlines and the process of hearing the bills was more than half of the legislative timeframe. After committee deadlines, the Capital Investment Committee had to start determining what proposals should be in and what should be out (needs versus wants).
This year, being the even-numbered year or bonding year, we need to remember that, while last year was not a bonding year in name, we approved $180 million in bonding. This year the initial House proposal was for $600 million, meaning, when added to the $180 million from 2015, we were committed to bonding for $780 million this biennium.
During the last two weeks of this session, the Senate took the position that a bonding bill should be $1.8 billion – nearly triple that which has been the established norm in a bonding year. During the last week of session, true compromises were made where the House proposal raised the target to $800 million and the Senate reduced its demands to approximately $900 million.
It is true that deadlines force compromises and, in this final week, the deadline created a bonding bill which was then released. During this process, the governor and Senate Democrats renewed demands for once again increasing revenue with the gas tax even though the governor, last summer had declared the gas-tax issue "dead on arrival," considering the state was running significant revenue surpluses.
In addition, they also proposed raising license-tab fees and/or raising the sales tax in the metro area by .5 percent. Although it can be argued that transportation funding requires a long-term, reliable source of revenue, none of the proposals would have been fully committed to road-and-bridge infrastructure. All three proposed new revenue sources – gas tax, tab fees and sales tax – would have been primarily used to fund, build and expand light-rail trains in the metro area. At present, the Green Line, the Blue Line and the Northstar Commuter Rail are losing a combined $55 million per year, costing as much as $45 per round-trip ride, subsidized by the taxpayer.
At least 98 percent of Minnesotans use autos as a means of transportation to get to work, to take their children to childcare and to carry on their daily commerce. To separate public transit from transportation is a narrative that suggests the two are different and yet equal. When less than 2 percent of the population uses public transit, they are not equal. Each new proposed light-rail line would require at least $2 billion of capital investment – not to mention the continued operating annual losses of each line as aforementioned.
It is unfortunate that this year's legislative session ended without a bonding bill again, over the same failed argument as last session, that the Legislature and the state government doesn't have enough money.
The House passed, with broad, bipartisan support (91-39), a bonding bill that would have been a down payment on a long-term transportation plan that would fund rebuilding our road-and-bridge infrastructure without raising new taxes. More than $700 million of the bonding/transportation bill, $300 million of which was cash, would have made improvements all across the state of Minnesota – metro and rural – in which all of Minnesotans use. Unlike light rail, roads and bridges are what aid in our daily commerce, delivering goods and services to markets all across the state.
Since the end of session, people from throughout Minnesota are calling for a special session to approve a bonding bill. I believe, when the governor reviews all of the proposals funded in the bipartisan bonding bill passed by the House which benefits Minnesotans all across the state, and the significant investments included in the bill, that he should certainly agree we must not wait until next year to make these investments.
Above, I speak during a press conference in Maple Plain Wednesday to discuss funding necessary to improve safety on Highway 12. The press conference featured citizens impacted by this hazardous stretch of highway, a number of legislators, local officials and others.
Here in Senate District 33, one most-covered issue, the safety of people using the Highway 12 corridor, has been greatly publicized. This segment of roadway has become the deadliest section of roadway in the state of Minnesota and has a fatality rate of nearly four deaths per mile – more than twice the average of any other problem area in the state. A total of $15 million in funding for safety improvements along this corridor proposed and chief authored by myself survived the entire legislative process as a priority and a need over the many other "wants." I worked with many legislators in both the House and the Senate to ensure inclusion of this funding in a final bonding bill. I also sought, through each step of the process, the support of every transportation committee member in both the House and the Senate, and the named conferees, to ensure the funding request would remain in the final bill. Unfortunately, the bonding bill failed in the Senate during attempts to amend the bill and the clock ran out of time and the constitutionally mandated midnight deadline arrived before passage.
There remains, at this point, only one person in all of Minnesota who can provide a last opportunity before next year to fund Highway 12 and that is Gov. Mark Dayton. We will continue working, not let this issue rest and hope he will call a special session next week.
Until then, have a good Memorial Day weekend. I encourage you to view this as much more than a three-day weekend to mark the beginning of summer. Memorial Day, which has a history stretching back all the way to the Civil War, is an important reminder of those who died in the service of their country in order to provide us with the liberties we all enjoy today. Please keep this in mind as you spend extra time in the company of friends and loved ones this weekend.
Rep. Jerry Hertaus