State Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said Wednesday that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has not thrown in the towel on a gas tax increase, even though he is willing to compromise on a funding plan for roads and bridges.
In an interview with WCCO radio Tuesday, Dayton said he no longer sees his proposed gas tax increase as "viable," given strong Republicans opposition.
Dayton said he remains concerned about the Republican proposal to use auto-related sales tax revenue, which is currently going into the general fund, but he expressed a willingness to accept it.
"Will I swallow that? Yeah, probably I will," he said in the interview, "because again we need a transportation bill. We need to start doing something. It won't be close to what's necessary."
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But Zelle said Wednesday the governor was merely showing the same willingness to compromise that he showed last session when a transportation agreement remained out of reach. Zelle stressed that Dayton's budget proposal, which includes a gas tax increase, is still on the table. He also doesn't believe that the governor was accepting the Republican alternative.
"I don't think it is," Zelle said. "It would be against my advice, because it is not sufficient, and I think what the governor has said in the past is, 'I'll accept a compromise, maybe multiple funding revenues.'"
A couple of hours later, Dayton was repeating that something for transportation is better than nothing. Dayton still prefers a gas tax increase, but he knows Republicans won't accept it.
"I mean I don't see the support for a gas tax, so it's beside the point," Dayton said. "They're going to take money from the general fund, they're going to have to account for that, because it's going to come out of everything else, schools and student aid and everything else. That's why again they need to reconcile all these different measures and have an honest, balanced budget before I start talking to them. But yes, we need a transportation bill."
Republicans also want a transportation bill.
House Transportation Finance Committee Chair Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said he thinks the governor's radio remarks were a positive signal. Undeterred by Zelle's clarification, Torkelson said he still sees an opportunity to move toward a deal on transportation funding.
"The bottom line for me is the governor made it clear that he thinks getting a transportation bill passed and signed this year is a priority, and that is good news," Torkelson said. "He also indicated that he sees the Republican position as being something that he can at least, if not accept, at least consider. So, that's good news too. So, we'll work on that as we move through the negotiations."
Torkelson's Senate counterpart, Sen. Scott Newman, R- Hutchinson, said he's truly optimistic about reaching a deal after hearing Dayton's comments. Newman said Republicans could show some flexibility with some money for transit.
"There I'm specifically thinking in terms of buses. I'm not thinking in terms of light rail at all," he said.
Meanwhile, people were at the Capitol Wednesday urging lawmakers to find a compromise. They argued that traffic fatalities are on the rise due to underfunded, unsafe highways.
During an outdoor rally, Beth Hodgman of West Concord, Minn., blamed the lack of improvements to Minnesota Highway 14 in southern Minnesota for the 2012 accident that killed her husband. Hodgman called on the Legislature to act.
"Stop finger-pointing, stop blame-shifting. This needs to all stop," she said. "We must prevent future crashes and fatalities and get this to happen this year."