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Spinning their wheels? House OKs transportation measure

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Legislators debate a bill on the house floor.
Legislators debate a bill on the house floor inside the Minnesota State Capitol on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

On the same day that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed one of their top session bills, Republicans in the Minnesota House pressed forward on a transportation funding plan that faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.

Unlike the tax bill that Dayton rejected, the transportation measure is a proposed constitutional amendment, which means Dayton has no say in whether it appears on the November ballot for voters to decide.

The House voted 76-54 for the measure which asks voters to decide whether to take sales tax revenue from auto parts and repairs and spend it exclusively on roads and bridges.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R- Hanska, the chair of the House transportation committee, said the amendment would capture about $250 million a year when fully implemented after five years.

"Everyone in this state depends on our infrastructure system of roads and bridges to get the goods and services they need to conduct their lives. We've hit this wall where we're approaching a time when all we can do is maintain. We need to do more than that. We need to build, and that's really what this is all about."

In an unusual alliance, Republicans are working with building trade labor unions to generate support for the amendment.

Jason George, legislative director of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, said the proposed funding solution will put people to work.

"If we can get this done, building on what we did last year, we can create tens of thousands of good-paying, union construction jobs in this state. I don't think anybody is against that and more people should be for that."

But unions that represent public employees oppose the proposal, saying it would put funding for education, health care and other vital programs at risk.

Rep. Sandra Masin, DFL- Eagan, criticized Republicans for asking voters to decide transportation funding rather than taking the action themselves.

"I challenge the House Republicans to come with a comprehensive transportation bill. I will vote for it. But I will not vote for the chicken way out."

The Senate would also need to pass the measure to place the proposed amendment on the statewide ballot in November, but that Senate vote might not happen.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he doesn't have the votes needed for passage because no Democrats appear willing to support the proposal. His caucus has a narrow one-seat advantage, and some Senate Republicans oppose amending the state constitution.

Despite the dim prospects in the Senate, amendment supporters say they hope the House action helps change some minds there in the closing days of the session.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said given that organized labor is divided on the issue, he doubts there is any support.

"There's been a lot of conversation in the halls about 'I don't want to be stuck in the middle of this fight between the public employee unions and the building trades unions,'" Bakk said. "So, people generally have said 'I'm not going to pick a side.' I think that's probably where people are at right now."