Confusion in the driver's seat on transportation initiative

Highway traffic
Many of the drivers of these cars may have no idea they have a chance to vote on a proposal that could help reduce traffic congestion.
MPR file photo

When you walk into the voting booth next month, you might have already made the decision as to whether you're for or against more funding for roads and public transit. But your firm convictions might turn to confusion when you behold the following question:

"Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate revenue from a tax on the sale of new and used motor vehicles over a five-year period, so that after June 30, 2011, all of the revenue is dedicated at least 40 percent for public transit assistance and not more than 60 percent for highway purposes?"

If you find this hard to digest on the first take, you're not alone. When a number of voters were shown the question during the course of their activities on a Sunday afternoon in St. Paul, they were pretty perplexed.

"I feel like an idiot, but {I have} no clue," said one.

"It's a long sentence," said another.

"Am I supposed to understand it?"

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"Only legislators and lawyers could possibly come up with that kind of wording, which would make it impossible to figure out what this means."

"Especially at the end, it's like a trick at the end."

The transportation ballot question seems dense. But it can be broken down into parts. First of all, it's not asking voters to agree to a new tax. Instead, it deals with an already existing vehicle sales tax. The money generated by that tax is split between the state's general fund and transportation. A vote in favor of the ballot initiative would change the state's constitution, so it would direct all the money from the motor vehicle tax to transit needs. At least 40 percent of those funds would help pay for public transit. And no more than 60 percent of that funding stream would pay for roads and bridges.

When provided with this additional information, many voters, like Andrea and Robert Messenger, still had a lot of questions about the policy issues at stake.

"Why should I have to pay for somebody else's transportation? Because that's basically what you'd be doing," Andrea Messenger asked.

"You're going to pay for somebody else's something or other," Robert Messenger said.

"If they're going to do that, why wouldn't they put it towards education?" Andrea volleyed back.

"As a former bus taker, I'm with it. I'm for it," her husband said.

The Messengers' conflicting views on the transportation funding proposal are common. Opponents say it will draw important dollars out of the general fund, dollars that could subsidize anything from education to lawmakers' salaries. A coalition of petitioners is actually trying to kill the ballot initiative before the election; they're worried it will divert money away from other important needs.

But supporters of the transportation funding proposal say transit needs its own dedicated funding source, which it's never had.

"If they're going to this, I'd probably vote yes, because they're actually taking care of the roads, which we need right now, especially on my commute," said voter Crystal Bauer.

She likes the ballot initiative because she favors more money for roads. She said her commute from her home in South St. Paul to her job at a hospital in downtown St. Paul takes way too long because of traffic.

But her coworker, Kristin Schifsky, who only commutes a mile each way-- has a much different view.

"It seems like the transit has enough money at the moment. They're building new construction everywhere. You never hear 'Oh, we don't have enough money for a new road.'"

The ballot initiative was originally part of a larger transportation bill that would have raised the gas tax. A bipartisan coalition of legislators had voted for the bill, but Gov. Pawlenty vetoed it. Because the governor can't veto a constitutional amendment, that part of the bill survived.

Voter Mac Baird, a physician, said he's disappointed that the legislature hasn't managed to push transportation funding through the legislative process.

"If we were doing that on a balanced basis, year by year, this wouldn't need to be on the ballot at all," he said. "But since we haven't been able to agree on that publicly, it seems like this is some way to make sure we have some money for public transit and highways."

But Baird said he's concerned the funding formula developed in the current transportation proposal won't match the state's needs down the road. He said, if the ballot initiative does go through, he hopes there will be a chance to revisit-- and adapt-- the transportation vision it lays out.