Transit funding still a big sticking point for special session

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Tom Bakk, from left,  Mark Dayton, Kurt Daudt
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, center, sits between Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, left, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, right, at a press conference in February. Transit funding is a contentious point for them and other lawmakers in special session negotiations.
Jim Mone | AP

If Gov. Mark Dayton and top legislative leaders are to agree on a special session to pass a tax bill and a bonding bill, they'll need to resolve a lingering, deep disagreement over metro-area mass transit.

It doesn't look promising.

House Republicans remain firmly opposed to any funding for Southwest Light Rail, while Dayton and Senate Democrats still insist on funding for the project.

Dayton made it clear to lawmakers this week that he's willing to compromise to get a special session agreement on taxes and bonding. He delivered that message soon after vetoing a package of tax cuts over what could've been a $100 million wording error in the bill.

But the governor also made clear that his list of must-haves for calling the special session still includes funding for Southwest and other transit projects through a metro county sales tax option.

"It's not my requirement," Dayton said. "It's a requirement we need for a healthy Minnesota, for a healthy metropolitan area, so the state can continue to grow economically."

The $1.8 billion light rail line would connect Eden Prairie with downtown Minneapolis when completed in 2020. Legislative action is needed on the final $135 million funding piece for Southwest, which would secure nearly $900 million in federal money for the project.

House Republicans want nothing to do with rail line. Their disagreement with Senate Democrats over the issue resulted in last month's chaotic close of the 2016 regular session, when the clock ran out on a nearly $1 billion bonding bill.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said he'd rather not take up Southwest in a special session, although he suggested a legislative hearing might be in order to further vet the project. There are too many concerns about the lawsuits against Southwest, he said, plus its price tag.

"I think there are some people that want it no question," Daudt said. "But I think the vast majority of Minnesotans are concerned about the cost and really whether it's the most effective or efficient use of our transportation dollars. So, there are big concerns about it."

The House Speaker also stressed that he's not swayed by one of Southwest supporters's key arguments: the potential loss of federal money.

"Taking the federal money to encumber us into eternity in covering the ongoing operating costs of a rail that will never have a chance of breaking even doesn't make a lot of sense," he said. "I think people understand that."

Metropolitan Council projections actually show per passenger subsidies for the Southwest rail line would be less than bus subsidies. The same is true for the two current light rail lines.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, is still criticizing Senate Democrats for their last-minute light rail amendment to the bonding bill that nobody had previously seen.

It would have allowed Hennepin County to increase its share of spending on the line, something even some of the county's government officials were not enthusiastic about. Hann said it was a "political stunt" rather than a serious attempt to get something done.

Many business and community leaders in and around Hann's Senate district support the project, but he doesn't believe there's been enough effort to expand that support.

Still, Hann said he isn't opposed to the project and is willing to discuss.

"What I think has happened is there has not been any attempt to build support for this project across the state," he said. We're here in the Legislature. We're asking 201 legislators from around the state to support something there's never been a hearing about. I think that's a problem."

Senate Democrats are not backing down on transit. DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook said he warned Speaker Daudt that a bonding bill can't pass the Senate without a provision for Southwest. Bakk said he expects it to be included in a special session.

"I think it's presumed that it's in the bill. It doesn't cost anything to the state, at least not the way the Senate proposed it," he said. "I think the presumption is that it's in the bill, and if it's not in the bonding bill, maybe it's in the tax bill. But the presumption is that it's going to be in something."

House and Senate negotiators are expected to meet soon to begin reviewing projects for a new bonding bill. The governor and legislative leaders plan to meet next Wednesday to continue their special session negotiations.

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