Transportation talks resume with new gas tax offer

With a little more than two weeks left in the 2016 session, state lawmakers resumed public negotiations Friday on the transportation funding bill that they left unresolved a year ago.

House Republicans and Senate Democrats remain at odds over a gas tax increase. But negotiators on both sides are making some small movement toward a potential compromise.

Senate Democrats still want new, long term revenue from a gas tax increase to fund needed transportation projects throughout the state. But they’ve reduced their proposal from 16 cents per gallon to 12 cents per gallon, which would be phased in over three years.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, told members of the transportation bill conference committee that the Senate is sticking with the gas tax.

“It’s never popular at the outset. It takes some courage,” Dibble said. “But once we take that step, we see that people really support those investments.”

The Senate offer also generates revenue by raising license tab fees and the penalties for late payment of registration taxes. Democrats are still pushing for a metro area sales tax increase to pay for transit projects.

Despite the tweaking, the DFL approach remains in fundamental conflict with House Republicans.

GOP lawmakers firmly oppose a gas tax and instead want to use existing sales tax revenues and a big chunk of the budget surplus to pay for roads and bridges.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, stressed that their position on the gas tax hasn’t changed.

“A majority of the people are not in favor of a gas tax,” Kelly said. “We don’t believe that’s where we should be going.”

Kelly signaled that the House could be warming to the transit funding component of the DFL plan, if that funding comes with reforms to the Metropolitan Council.

“Many people on both sides of the aisle have concerns of where that money goes, how it’s distributed, what projects are created,” he said.

The conference committee discussed a House bill that requires Metropolitan Council members be local elected officials, serving staggered terms. The bill also establishes a commission to study the council’s powers, duties and structure.

Kelly said House negotiators will present a transportation counter offer next week.

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