Proposed amendment raises concerns

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 5, 2006

Local representative criticizes transportation amendment

By Rebecca Houg, staff writer

When voters go to the polls on Nov. 7, they will be asked to vote yes or no on an amendment to Minnesota&8217;s constitution that would permanently dedicate funds raised from vehicle sales taxes for transportation. This is neither a new tax nor a tax increase, it is a redistribution of funds.

Currently, only 54 percent of the existing Motor Vehicle Sales Tax revenue is being spent on transportation improvements to both highways and transit statewide. If the Transportation Amendment is approved by voters, 100 percent of the revenue will go to highways and public transit. More than $300 million per year in additional revenue will be available for Minnesota&8217;s roads, bridges and transit.

The phase in of the revenue will occur over five years, beginning in 2007 with the full 100 percent dedication in place by 2012.

The MVST amendment calls for up to 60 percent of the dedicated funds go to state highways and local roads and at least 40 percent to public transit statewide, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

This language has caused controversy among Minnesotans. Some worry that the wording leaves open the possibility that rail and bus projects might consume most or all of the dedicated money.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty supports passage of this amendment, and has proposed using the full 60 percent for road improvements. Pawlenty and Lt. Governor and Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau proposed a $2.5 billion transportation investment plan designed to accelerate dozens of major highway projects across the state with the help of new revenue from the amendment.

&8220;This amendment isn&8217;t perfect,&8221; Pawlenty said. &8220;It&8217;s confusingly written, but it&8217;s a good step forward for Minnesota.&8221;

&8220;Having a good infrastructure, it&8217;s part of our economy, but it&8217;s also a part of quality of life and safety,&8221; said Molnau.

Interestingly enough, the amendment was first proposed by the governor in 2005. Late in the &8216;05 session the amendment was added on the floor of the House to a comprehensive transportation bill that was then passed. The Senate adopted the bill and the bill was vetoed by the Governor. The amendment was the only part of the bill to survive since constitutional amendments pass directly from the legislature to voters.

A group of critics, led by rural mayors and legislators challenged the proposed amendment to the point that the issue went to the Minnesota Supreme Court less than two weeks before the election. On Oct. 26, the court ruled the amendment needs to remain on the ballot.

State Representative, Dan Dorman, a Republican, said the ruling means he and other opponents will be left to campaign against the amendment&8217;s passage.

&8220;It is a guarantee of at least 40 percent and not more than 100 percent to transit, and zero to 60 percent for roads,&8221; Dorman said. &8220;That part gets lost. Will it be 60-40, will it be 80-20? We don&8217;t know until the Legislature takes action.&8221;

According to Dorman, the proponents of the issue organized under the Vote Yes campaign title, have spent over $4 million dollars on promoting positive votes for the amendment.

&8220;When I realized they spent more than Mike Hatch who spent about $2.8 million or Gov. Pawlenty who spent about $3.4 million on their campaigns, to promote only one issue it&8217;s unbelievable,&8221; Dorman said.

Many supporters of the amendment see the plan as an opportunity to create a safer and more efficient transportation system. The only sources of funding for transportation in Minnesota are MVST (through the general fund) and gas tax.

&8220;We need new money for transportation,&8221; said Freeborn County Highway Engineer Sue Miller. &8220;There has been no new revenue since the gas tax was increased in 1988.&8221;

Gas tax is separate from the MVST tax. 100 percent of the gas tax already goes to transportation, but it hasn&8217;t been increased since &8216;88 when it was set at 20 cents. Unlike neighboring states, Minnesota hasn&8217;t adjusted the tax for inflation.

Costs have continued to increase, but there has been no increase in funding to keep up. The estimated annual allocation to Freeborn County would be over $636,000 once the amendment was fully phased in and if highways and roads were given 60 percent.

Miller realizes some voters may be concerned with the wording of the ballot question, but she said highways and local roads demonstrate such a drastic need for funding that it would be hard for legislators not to assign a large percent of the funds there.

&8220;We need the support of that $600,000,&8221; Miller said. &8220;There&8217;s a need to justify that 60 percent.&8221;

Miller explained that 67 percent of all traffic fatalities occur on rural two lane roads, according to a study by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

&8220;You can&8217;t put money toward transit if you want to save lives,&8221; she said.

Mike Wagner, an engineer in Nicollet County also says he can&8217;t imagine legislature spending 100 percent on transit.

&8220;The amendment wording does allow for the legislature to skip all roadways with MVST, but rural and metro county highway engineers cannot see that happening. The metro legislators simply have far too much need for highway funding to promote such an action,&8221; Wagner said.

Rep. Dorman isn&8217;t so certain.

&8220;There&8217;s no way we&8217;re going to stay at 60 percent for long,&8221; he said.

Miller explained that to keep our rural economy viable, rural roads need to be updated to match today&8217;s needs. Those needs include roads that can accommodate the 10 ton semis that today&8217;s farmers need to do business. &8220;Transportation is a public safety issue and backbone of keeping economy strong,&8221; Miller said.

Only 15 percent of the 634 miles of road in Freeborn County are at the 10 ton rate.

Miller also said she operates with a budget that is $3 million short of what she needs each year to replace roads and bridges that have reached their 50 year expiration date.

&8220;You can&8217;t put a tax on the backs of local property owners for that,&8221; she said.

An often unheard voice in this whole issue is the concern that pulling the MVST revenue out of the general fund and dedicating it to transportation will leave a $300 million hole in the general fund.

The 46 percent of MVST money that isn&8217;t currently going toward transportation is helping fund other departments from high schools to health care.

Superintendent of Albert Lea Public Schools David Prescott said he is concerned about dedicating the funds to transportation that are coming out of the same pot of money education funding comes from.

&8220;When we say we can shift all that money, that sounds great for transportation, but what about the other programs already using that money?&8221; he asked.

&8220;Some of the proponents seem to ignore what the money is currently being used for,&8221; Prescott said. &8220;I think people need to take it the next step further and try to figure out how to fill that void.&8221;

He wonders what the state is going to do to maintain and replenish that money that is going to be taken away from education.

Miller said voters need to keep in mind that the $300 million sounds like a lot of money but it only works out to be a half a percent of the total budget.

&8220;In my mind, there should be a way to fund transportation with a user fee (such as MVST) and not harm the other very valuable programs in place.&8221;

She reinforced the fact that the change would be phased in over five years and the issue won&8217;t end after election day.

&8220;If this passes, the campaign won&8217;t end on Nov. 8. If there is a hole and it needs to be filled, we will all be working to see that it&8217;s done responsibly,&8221; Miller said.

There might be a number of ways to solve the problem and scare tactics saying

teachers will lose their jobs are unnecessary, she said.

Freeborn County Administrator Ron Gabrielsen can see both sides of the issue. He said he knows for a fact there are roads that need to be repaired, but he also worries about those without a voice who might be adversely affected by diverting the funds.

&8220;It&8217;s a damned if you do, and damned if you don&8217;t kind of situation,&8221; he said.

&8220;Why would you have a tax on motor vehicles and then put the money somewhere else?&8221; Gabrielsen asked. &8220;The reality is the state has gotten used to taking that money and using it to bail out other areas.&8221;

&8220;If voters pass the amendment, there&8217;s going to have to be a mechanism in place to fund human services programs,&8221; Gabrielsen said.

Gabrielsen encourages voters to research the issue and decide where they stand. Passing an amendment to the constitution in Minnesota requires a majority vote. If a voter supports the amendment, a &8220;yes&8221; vote is necessary. If a voter leaves this question blank on the ballot, it is considered a &8220;no&8221; vote.

Neal Gjersvik, Manchester, is one of those voters who has taken on the task of researching the transportation amendment and he believes the best source of relatively unbiased information has been the Civic Caucus.

The caucus is a non-partisan, tax-exempt educational organization and their core participants include people of varying political persuasions according to their report on the proposed constitutional amendment.

&8220;This is the only report that I&8217;m confident I&8217;m getting a full answer to the questions of the issue,&8221; Gjersvik said.

He is the chairman on the Manchester Township board and works as a salesman for TEC Industrial, a company that makes its profits in the realm of transportation.

&8220;It is not a comfortable thing for me to be opposed to this. I want roads. I make my living often times from doing business with companies completing road construction projects,&8221; Gjersvik said.

A new concern he raised is the issue that this amendment isn&8217;t something that belongs in the state&8217;s constitution.

&8220;If you look at the Minnesota State Constitution, it is really simple. That&8217;s the way it&8217;s meant to be. When you make financial and budget decisions with the constitution, it makes it inflexible,&8221; he said.

Dorman agreed with Gjersvik saying, &8220;We shouldn&8217;t be budgeting in the constitution. It doesn&8217;t belong there.&8221;

Gjersvik also added that the issue is something a complex one and something legislature should be able to solve on their own without relying on the relatively uninformed masses to make a major decision like this.

&8220;In a nutshell, I want our elected officials to go back to doing their jobs,&8221; he said.