Minnesotans vote 'yes' on transportation amendment

(AP) Minnesota voters locked state government into spending more money on roads and public transit, approving an amendment to the state constitution that's expected to funnel an extra $300 million a year into transportation projects.

As the dust settled on the election early Wednesday, it became clear that voters had approved the amendment, which will require that all motor vehicle sales tax proceeds go specifically toward transportation.

With 86 percent of precincts reporting, 57 percent voted "yes" and 43 percent voted "no" or did not vote on it at all.

Passing a constitutional amendment is not a simple matter in Minnesota. It requires a majority of everyone who votes in the election, and failing to vote on the proposal counts as a "no" vote. And it didn't become clear until the early hours Wednesday that the proposal had enough support to overcome the voters who left the amendment box on their ballots blank.

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"People do understand that we have not invested properly in our transportation infrastructure, and this is a necessary first step," said a leader of the amendment campaign, Rick Krueger, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance. "... It should bode well for the future."

The amendment will be phased in over the next five years until, by 2011, it directs around $300 million in new money toward improving roads and public transit.

Minnesotans for Better Roads and Transit, a coalition of more than 1,000 groups and businesses, had planned to spend about $3.5 million on billboards and other advertising urging Minnesotans to vote "yes."

But a coalition of rural legislators and mayors said the amendment was poorly worded and might not direct enough money into highway projects. The wording said that at least 40 percent of the money would be used for mass transit, with no more than 60 percent for roads and bridges. Critics said that vague language left open the possibility that light rail and bus projects might grab nearly all the money.

Others, such as the teachers union Education Minnesota, said it would divert money from schools, health care and other programs. Almost half of the motor vehicle sales tax dollars now flow into the state's general fund, where the money can be spent on anything.

Future legislatures may have to consider spending cuts or tax increases if other revenues don't rise enough to plug the hole in future budgets.