Supreme Court hears challenge to transportation funding amendment

The transit puzzle
Opponents of the referendum say the percentages in the ballot question language confuse voters. They argue voters might be led to believe that 100 percent of the revenue could go to transit.
MPR Photo Illustration

When Minnesotan's step into the voting booth on election day, and after they've marked the ballot for candidates for governor, Congress, the Minnesota legislature and a batch of local races, they'll vote yes or no on a question that reads:

"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?"

Opponents to the question include Education Minnesota, the teachers union, along with the Minnesota Farm Bureau and a coalition of rural cities. Some of them asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to strike the question from the ballot. Their attorney, Doug Peine, told the justices the question is unconstitutional, not for what it proposes, but because the language is confusing.

"Our position is if you submit a confusing question to the voters that is tantamount to not giving them the right to vote. They are going to be making a misinformed vote which is at least as bad and may be even worse than no vote at all," he said.

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Opponents say the percentages in the ballot question language confuse voters. They argue voters might be led to believe that 100 percent of the revenue could go to transit.

Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Raschke, Jr. defending the ballot question for the state, says the language is clear. He adds the effect of the amendment is no different from what lawmakers could do right now on their own.

"A hundred percent now could go for transit. There's no change in that fact. Zero percent now could constitutionally go for highways. No change in that. What it does say is at least 40 percent will go for transit," he said.

Raschke says what the opponents really object to is how the money will be spent if the amendment is approved.

The amendment would require all the motor vehicle sales tax (MVST) revenue, about $300 million, go to transportation. Officials from some rural cities and counties worry dedicating a portion of MVST to transit means taking some potential dollars away from road and bridge projects.

That could happen. But another possible scenario is transit loses even if voters approve the amendment. If the question passes, lawmakers might argue that since transit now has a dedicated source of funding, the money from the state's general fund that is currently spent on transit including Twin Cities public bus service can be used elsewhere.

Other opponents worry counties and school districts will lose state general fund money for health care or education if the transportation amendment is approved. Right now about half of the MVST revenue goes to the general fund. The rest is spent on transportation.

Supporters of the amendment say no one will lose. They argue the state's economy will continue to grow and tax revenue will more than make up for the mvst general fund revenue diverted to transportation.

The increasingly intense debate over the transportation ballot question grows out of the squeeze on Minnesota's transportation funding.

There's wide agreement an increasing portion of the state's 150,000 miles of roads and its thousands of bridges need repair and replacement. Others, including business people and environmentalists, say the Twin Cities is transit-starved and falling behind competitively with cities such as Denver, Phoenix and Dallas where more is being spent on transportation systems.

Even some advocates of the transportation amendment prefer it weren't on the ballot. They regard it as a failure of the political system. They wish elected leaders had the courage to raise the gas tax, other user fees and maybe the sales tax rather than asking voters to make spending decisions.

A decision by Minnesota Supreme on the challenge to the transportation amendment ballot could come at any time.