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Debate over earmarks looms in transportation funding fight

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Repair work
Workers repair a column on one of two railroad bridges over Monroe Street in Minneapolis, Minn. July 15, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2015

There's another debate brewing in the fight for road and bridge repairs beyond its final size and funding mechanism: Who should pick which projects get the money?

That responsibility has typically fallen to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. But the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that the Republican-controlled Legislature is advancing bills that specifically select some projects: A department list shows $1 million in so-called earmarks in the House transportation budget, while the Senate's funding package has more than $100 million in earmarks.

State officials say the earmarks are troublesome, given that legislators could choose projects that aren't ready to begin construction. The fight over those earmarks adds to the list of disputes between Republicans and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton after several years of failed attempts to pass a major transportation funding package.

Dayton is still pushing for a gasoline tax increase to fund billions of dollars in infrastructure repairs over the next decade. The GOP has proposed using a mix of the state's $1.65 billion budget surplus and existing taxes on car rentals and auto parts to fund projects.

Republican Sen. Scott Newman said the state's project selection process has neglected some critical needs, like repairs to U.S. Highway 12 in western Minneapolis suburbs, where safety concerns and several fatal accidents have mounted.

"We in the Legislature have heard more and more from our constituents asking why MnDOT doesn't get the job done in our particular area of the state," said Newman, a Hutchinson Republican who chairs the Senate's transportation committee.

But transportation commissioner Charlie Zelle says the Legislature's meddling can cause problems if they pick projects that aren't ready to begin. And while earmarks aren't new, Zelle said specifically dedicating money for roadways in the state trunk highway system was a new and problematic development.

"When you take one or two projects and leapfrog others, it creates resentments from those who have been waiting . and maybe have higher scoring projects," he said.