Column: Politics threatens key transportation funding

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 8, 2007

By David C. Olson, Guest Column

There is little debate among legislators, the governor, businesses and citizens alike about the need to improve our roads, bridges, and transit system. Safety issues abound from Highway 2 in the north to Highway 23 in central Minnesota to Highway 14 in the south. Congestion is worsening in the Twin Cities. More and more people are depending on public transit in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota.

Debate rages, however, over how Minnesota taxpayers should begin to meet those needs. Once again, politics threatens to take priority over progress at the Legislature.

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The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce urges lawmakers and the governor to make progress on improving our transportation infrastructure this year. Politics need to take a backseat.

Some transportation advocates have failed to learn their lessons from the past two decades. They continue to advance an &8220;all or nothing&8221; approach. At the same time some lawmakers prefer to embarrass the governor by forcing the veto of a mega-tax bill rather than proposing a more moderate package that has a realistic chance of becoming law.

The business community understands the necessity to move people and products safely and efficiently across the state. We were at the forefront of passage of Minnesota&8217;s Transportation Amendment in November, which dedicates all of the sales tax on vehicles to transportation purposes. The transfer of this money, once fully phased in over five years, will result in about $270 million per year.

The amendment was a good and necessary first step, but more money clearly is needed. This session, we are lobbying to raise the gas tax up to 5 cents, increase license tab fees, dedicate the sales tax on leased vehicles to metro transit, and bond to accelerate projects.

Our package would generate significant and permanent dollars for roads and transit &8212; nearly half a billion dollars in FY 2008-09 and almost $650 million in 2010-11.

That&8217;s not enough for some folks, however. They want to try to make up for the 20 years of neglect in a single session. The Senate bill &8212; through a combination of higher taxes and fees &8212; would exceed $1.1 billion in FY 2008-09 and $1.6 billion the following biennium. Respective figures for the House proposal are approximately $860 million and $1.3 billion.

One strategy has been clear from the beginning. Send a massive transportation-funding bill destined to be vetoed, and then blame Gov. Tim Pawlenty for continued lack of progress on transportation. In reality, leadership in both houses would be hard pressed to find the votes to override a veto unless these bills are scaled down.

Our greatest fear is that a veto will end the debate, and we&8217;ll wind up with the status quo. That&8217;s unacceptable.

The last permanent infusion of new transportation money was a gas tax increase in 1988. Funding remained largely stagnant until Minnesotans passed the Transportation Amendment. Further headway now rests with legislators. Key Transportation Conference Committee members seem willing to try and develop a more moderate transportation package, and we applaud them.

The &8220;all or nothing&8221; track record speaks for itself. It&8217;s time to seize the opportunity to pass a package that ensures progress on making our roads safer and less congested.

David Olson is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.