Transportation amendment hits pothole in state Senate

A truck cruises past potholes on Mississippi River Boulevard
A truck cruises past potholes on Mississippi River Boulevard in St. Paul on March 19, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Republican lawmakers have been talking for months about permanently dedicating sales tax money to road and bridge projects.

To do it, they would ask voters in November to approve a constitutional amendment.

But now that plan has hit a major snag.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Monday he was counting on help from Senate Democrats to pass the constitutional amendment. But he's been told those votes are no longer there.

Republicans have a narrow 34-33 majority in the Senate.

Gazelka, of Nisswa, said most of his caucus wants Minnesota voters to decide in a November election whether to dedicate millions in existing sales tax revenue to road and bridge projects. But he said some don't.

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"I've always said that I had to have a number of Democratic votes. If we have zero, it makes it very tough," he said.

Under a Senate bill, future sales tax revenues from auto parts, repairs and vehicle rentals and leases would go into a special account to pay for road and bridge projects. That money, estimated at about $250 million a year, would no longer be available for schools, nursing homes or other budget areas.

Sen. Bruce Anderson of Buffalo is one of the Republican lawmakers who opposes the measure. Anderson said he's concerned about its impact on the general fund budget.

"It's just like having a hole in your tire. You've got to either patch it, or you've got to buy a new tire. Somehow, something's got to fill that void to be able to keep that tire going or the car going. Same with the budget."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he has worries about it too.

"I personally have always been concerned about the idea of spending money in the constitution," he said. "I just think it takes a lot of flexibility away from future legislatures to respond to changing priorities of the public."

Bakk suggests lawmakers dedicate a comparable amount to transportation in statute, so they could reverse course if necessary in the future.

Another alternative would be to raise the gas tax, which is already constitutionally dedicated to transportation. But both parties have been reluctant to do that.

Republicans in the Minnesota House, meanwhile, are moving forward with their version of the bill. The House Rules Committee advanced the measure Monday, which differs slightly from the Senate bill. The House bill limits the sales tax revenue to auto parts and repairs.

Business groups were among those testifying in support of the proposal.

Bentley Graves, director of health care and transportation policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the dedicated funding would help provide a safe, reliable transportation system.

"This will help broaden the base of financial support for our system over time, with a funding source that will grow to keep pace with the cost of construction," Graves said.

But education groups are among those raising concerns.

Gary Amoroso, Minnesota Association of School Administrators, noted that lawmakers already have a constitutional obligation to fund public schools.

"We want to make sure those resources are available to be provided. With that, I request that the conversation around transportation look in different directions for how those funds can be procured," Amoroso said.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, the chair of the House transportation committee, said he remains confident about his bill.

"Transportation deserves to have its fair share of the budget," he said. "We just think that because dedicated funding has been the way it's been addressed in the past that additional dedicated funding in the constitution makes good sense."