Confusion about MVST ballot question fuels funding debate at Capitol

Construction equipment
Road construction at the I-494 reconstruction between Highway 5 and I-394.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

There are at least two sets of worriers.

Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski is from one group. He worries about two phrases in the ballot language, 'no less than' and 'no more than'.

Voters will be asked to decide if 100 percent of the MVST revenue, about $558 million this year, should eventually go to transportation. Right now just under half goes to the general fund for other uses.

But that's not the ballot language lawmakers approved last session.

Their language puts the question to voters this way: "Do you approve amending the state constitution to allow no more than 60 percent of MVST revenue to go to roads and bridges and no less than 40 percent to transit."

Dave Smiglewski says the wording is confusing.

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"When you say at least 40 that's saying, 'no less than,' and when you say 'no more,' than 60 percent for highways, that's saying at the most that's 60," he says. "And when I explain that to people and talk to them they have a very, very skeptical look on their faces when they hear about that, because what they're hearing is, 'Yeah there's going to be more money, but you know what it could well be that most of it goes to transit.'"

Do you approve amending the state constitution to allow no more than 60 percent of MVST revenue to go to roads and bridges and no less than 40 percent to transit?

"That's foolishness," says Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina. Erhardt says that's not how the system works.

Erhardt, who chairs the House Transportation Policy Committee says, everyone knows the road and bridge interests will get their share of the money.

"The legislature still has to vote and appropriate that money and that's certainly not going to switch everything to transit," he says.

In fact the opposite has been the case. Rural Minnesota continues to get roughly half of the state's transportation funds.

Lea Schuster, the director of Transit for Livable Communities, a St. Paul-based advocacy group says lawmakers continue to chip away at money for transit.

"Transit has steadily been losing money at the Legislature for the last years. We've had transit cuts and fare increases," she says.

One proposal now before lawmakers would change the MVST ballot question language to specify 60 percent for roads and 40 percent for transit as a hard and fast formula.

Rep. Erhardt blames the tempest on lobbyists who are looking for business and who are fanning the flames of worry of outstate officials. Those officials have formed a group called the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

Now for the second worry.

Some lawmakers claim they are hearing from constituents the ballot language makes it sound like they're being asked to approve a new tax when in fact the question is about how to spend an existing tax.

Road closed
The intersection of Highway 7 and Interstate 494 in Minnetonka where the interchange is being rebuilt and several miles of a third freeway lane is being added at a cost of $136 million.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Everyone's nervousness boils down to concern over having more money.

Transit advocate Lea Schuster believes the language is clear and any driver who hits a pothole or rider who waits for a bus will understand what's at stake.

"Once Minnesotans understand this will provide a steady, stable funding source for transit that will be stable in a way that roads currently are and in addition, will add more money for roads, that's a win-win across the state, whether you live in the metro area or greater Minnesota," she says.

Voter approval to spend all the MVST revenue on transportation could mean as much as half a billion dollars more for state transportation projects by 2011.

So the prospect of MVST money has energized transportation advocates. But they're concern is voter approval of constitutional amendments, which is relatively rare.

Part of the reason is Minnesota's voting system. The proposed MVST change requires a simple majority. However voters who don't mark the ballot question are counted as a no vote.

As result, Minnesota voters who don't understand the MVEST question and who don't mark the ballot question end up being counted as opponents of the change.