• 75°

Clock is ticking for big issues at Capitol

With about a month left in this year’s legislative session, lawmakers have differing views on transportation, local government aid and bonding. Legislators, however, are confident the session will include the passage of bills they deem as critical for Albert Lea and the surrounding area.

A nearly $2.2 billion transportation bill has passed the House that includes $450 million in additional funding. The House proposal reprioritizes taxes on automobile-related items. Under the plan, $300 million would be invested in Corridors of Commerce, including $50 million in cash.

“Those are a couple of things that will really help Albert Lea as well as Highway 14,” said District 24A Rep. John Petersburg, R-Owatonna, during a visit to the Tribune. Petersburg is the vice chairman of the transportation finance committee.

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said she was pleased the House proposal does not increase the gas tax, especially with the area’s close proximity to Iowa.

During a visit to Albert Lea, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith on Thursday said she is pleased there is general agreement among legislators of the need for a long-term sustainable transportation funding source.

She said she agrees with Bennett and District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, on the importance of funding transportation for small cities. Smith defended the governor’s proposal of raising the gas tax, saying the increase would ask people to only pay $3.50 a week.

“If everyone does that across the whole state, we would then have the resources we need in order to improve our roads and bridges, and we just think that is a good deal for Minnesota,” Smith said.

She doubted whether the House proposal would fully meet the state’s transportation needs and said the governor’s proposal would address a backlog in transportation funding and make resources available for cities and counties to make road improvements. Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal is needed in Freeborn County, Smith said. 

“If our proposal does not go through, then what is Freeborn County going to do?” she said. “They are going to either not improve the roads — the roads are going to be less safe. They are going to have to postpone improvements, and it’s going to cost more money next year than it does this year, or they are going to have to go back to the property tax to pay for things, which is really not that fair.”

Sparks said the governor’s budget proposal would repair or replace 1,700 miles of roads and 235 bridges as well as an expansion of current transit systems.

Petersburg said the GOP plan invests $2 million in the Safe Routes to School program, and funding would cover 97 bridges targeted for work by the Department of Transportation.

Bennett said she supports the House proposal for cities under 5,000 people.

“Those communities are usually left out — Clarks Grove, Hayward, Glenville, Wells, all those similar ones — they don’t get that money, and we are giving money specifically to them for their roads and bridges, however they choose to put it, so I think that is something that is very worthwhile,” she said.

LGA

Under the governor’s office proposal, Albert Lea would receive $140,170 in additional local government aid in 2018. The Senate includes a more than $81,000 increase, and the House proposal includes no LGA increase for Albert Lea or Freeborn County in 2018.

“The basic idea of local government aid is that no matter where you live in Minnesota, you should have a basic level of core services like police and fire, fire protection — no matter where you live,” Smith said. “There is a partnership between the state and the cities on that. And there’s where you see a really big contrast. I know that Albert Lea relies a ton on local government aid to help provide those services, and that’s why the governor has this in his budget.”

A lack of LGA funding would mean property owners would fund more of the services provided for small communities, Smith said.

Bennett, who supports an increase in LGA funding, said she will work with the Senate and governor’s office on the issue. She did not commit to a specific requested funding increase because she said there are other parts of the state budget that need funding.

“I certainly understand the need for LGA, and I’ve heard from our city leaders from Blooming Prairie to Albert Lea to Wells,” she said. “It’s necessary, and I’m confident that we will have a good number when we are all finished.”

Though Bennett supports an increase in LGA funding, she said she supports money being placed more directly into the hands of taxpayers, like tax relief for farmers.

Legislative proposals for LGA funding would differently affect local communities.

Alden: The governor’s office includes nearly $9,000 in additional funding. The Senate proposes nearly $5,200.

Clarks Grove: The governor’s office includes about $10,000 in additional funding. The Senate includes a $5,784 increase.

Geneva: The governor’s office includes nearly $9,000 in additional local government aid, and the Senate proposes nearly $5,200.

The governor’s office proposes nearly $70,000 in additional LGA funding in Freeborn County. The Senate proposes nearly $41,700.

Bonding

Bennett, a House Capital Investment Committee member, said she is focused on passing a budget bill before a bonding bill is addressed. The House has not proposed a bonding bill yet. The governor’s office and Senate each propose $7.4 million for work at Riverland Community College to modernize the college’s transportation, trade and industrial education center. The project relocates the truck driving and collision repair program from Austin to Albert Lea.

Bennett said she is advocating for Riverland and Stables area work to be included in a bonding bill she said will be addressed after the budget process is finished.

A bonding bill was not finalized in 2016. Bennett said projects in last year’s bonding bill included quality projects that can be addressed this year.

Smith urged the House to take up a bonding bill, adding her belief that there are essential bonding projects across the state.

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

email author More by Sam