Supreme Court: Transportation amendment stays on ballot

(AP) A proposed constitutional amendment to dedicate tax dollars to state transportation needs will remain on the Nov. 7 ballot, despite arguments that its wording is confusing, the state Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

The court ruled without comment. It promised a full written opinion later.

As written, the question asked voters if they wanted all vehicle sales taxes to go into a special account, with at least 40 percent used for mass transit and no more than 60 percent for roads and bridges. The wording left open the possibility that rail and bus projects could suck up most or all the dedicated money.

The decision is a boon to a business-led coalition that has spent millions of dollars promoting the amendment. They hope it will provide a steady flow of money to pay for work on deteriorating or congested highways, and mass transit.

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Once fully phased in by 2011, the amendment was expected to sink an additional $300 million a year into transportation projects.

A group of critics, led by rural mayors and legislators, who brought the challenge said voters can't be sure that highways will benefit at all. A misinformed vote was at least as bad as no vote at all, one opposition lawyer argued.

"This amendment isn't perfect," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. "It's confusingly written, but it's a good step forward for Minnesota."

Pawlenty, a Republican, said if both he and the amendment prevail on Election Day, he would push to make sure the most money allowable goes to roads. His Democratic opponent, Attorney General Mike Hatch, has made the same pledge.

The Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson is the only gubernatorial candidate opposed to the amendment. He argues lawmakers could make the same funding decisions without enshrining it in the constitution.

The state teachers union, Education Minnesota, also fought the amendment, saying it would leave a hole in the budget that could threaten money for schools and other government priorities. A chunk of sales taxes from cars and trucks now flow to the state treasury and can be used at the Legislature's discretion.

Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, said Thursday's ruling means he and other opponents will be left to campaign against the amendment's passage.

"It's bad for the entire state of Minnesota, but it's awful for rural Minnesota," he said. "This is great if you're a transit lover, but if you care about transit and education, or transit and health care, it's not such a good thing."