MVST question is double-edged sword outside the Twin Cities

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Highway 14 in southern Minnesota is considered a deadly road. It weaves between two and four lanes and dips into quiet towns through farms and into cities like Rochester and Mankato. Legislators along the highway have been hammering for years to get the highway fully expanded to four lanes. Owatonna is one of them. It sits at the junction of highway 14 and interstate 35. Mayor Tom Kuntz says now is the time to finish the road.

"Location, location, location means a lot of things," Kuntz says. "And we feel there is a strong benefit to have that highway completed all the way from New Ulm, all the way to Rochester."

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Kuntz says if Minnesotans vote yes on the motor vehicle sales tax constitutional amendment highway 14 will inch closer to becoming a four-lane highway. That would mean economic growth for Owatonna.

However, dedicating all of MVST's dollars to transportation would cut $300 million from the state's general fund over the next five years. The general fund pays for local government aid, or LGA. The legislature made cuts to LGA in 2005 and 2007. Kuntz says LGA remains an easy target to balance the budget. The legislature has no proposal to make up the money the general fund would lose in MVST money.

"We, for 2007 budget, took a $690,000 cut for LGA for city of Owatonna. I think that's the largest cut that any of the cities in the state of Minnesota received. That is a concern that if they have to make the $300 million up in some other places, one of the first things that get looked at is LGA, and we can't afford any more cuts on LGA," Kuntz says.

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Still, dancing thoughts of a four-lane highway 14 led Kuntz and Owatonna's city council to take a neutral stance on the amendment. Even if state aid isn't cut, Owatonna still won't have access to all of the MVST dollars. The city doesn't have any mass transit. The amendment's language says at least 40 percent of the additional dollars would go to mass transit. No more than 60 percent would go to roads.

Beyond the Twin Cities, mass transit mostly serves seniors and disabled people. But in Rochester transit administrator Tony Knauer says buses move 1.4 million people every year. Thirty years ago it was only a quarter million. Knauer says he hopes to expand bus service by 30 percent.

"We've got a lot of neighborhoods that don't have any transit service at all. And we're pretty conservative in our expansion. What we look at is that we're not going to start running 24 hour bus service out there," Knauer says.

He says additional MVST dollars would help pay for expansion. But Rochester has taken no position on the MVST amendment. And it is a member of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, which opposes the amendment.

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Transportation lobbyist Holly Biron says the amendment's language doesn't guarantee any money will go toward roads.

"Essentially, the 'at least-not more than' language could put all of this motor vehicle sales tax revenue into transit, and that's a major concern for Greater Minnesota mayors, council members," Biron says. "Because while they're supportive of transit they're really concerned about their roads for economic development and safety issues."

Education Minnesota and the Farmer's Bureau are also against the amendment. But Rep. Connie Ruth, R-Owatonna, is telling her constituents to vote for it. Ruth's district includes some communities along along highway 14. She says initially she opposed the amendment, but Greater Minnesota's roads desperately need more money for repairs, even if they have to share those dollars with transit.

"At this point this is what we have. And what we have to do is we have to go back to the legislature and make sure that we are statutorily putting in the hard 60-40, which shouldn't be an issue, realistically," she says.

Ruth says the $300 million the amendment's passage would generate is a pittance in comparison to the $1 billion Minnesota's roads need for upkeep. But she says it's a start.

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