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A09-0875 In re Welfare of M.L.M. (Court of Appeals)

David Strom: MoveMN’s bad plan

It’s always easier to raise taxes dedicated to some recognizable public good.

Taxpayers are rightfully wary of taxes directed at the general fund these days. Trust in government is at historic lows, and even liberals will admit in private that “government” and “efficiency” rarely belong in the same sentence. Think MNsure.

That’s what makes the latest push to raise taxes dedicated to building transportation infrastructure more attractive than most proposals. A coalition called MoveMN has been formed to push through a huge tax increase by raising gas and sales taxes $700 million a year to plow into new and expanded transportation projects.

Everybody knows that transportation funding is a proper function of Minnesota government. One of the longest sections in the Constitution is dedicated to funding roads and how to allocate the resources collected through state gas taxes. And few would deny that there are improvements that could be made to the current transportation infrastructure.

But MoveMN’s plan is a bad one, and one good look at the list of supporters shows you why.

The list is long and diverse, which should be your first clue. For your edification, I will list just the “A” and “B” supporters in an alphabetical list that goes from “A” to “Y”: AARP Minnesota, The Ackerberg Group, Advocating Change Together (ACT), Aeon, African Career, Education & Resource Inc. (ACER), AFSCME Minnesota Council 5, Aggregate Industries, Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, Alliance for Sustainability, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, American Council of Engineering Companies, American Engineering Testing, Inc., American Heart Association Minnesota Chapter, American Institute of Architects Minnesota, Arc Greater Twin Cities, Architectural Alliance + 20 Below, Asian Economic Development Association, Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, Association of Minnesota Counties, Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, Barr Engineering Co., Bearence Management, Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, Bituminous Roadways Inc., Bloomington Bicycle Alliance, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, BlueGreen Alliance, Bolton & Menk, Braun Intertec Corp.

Those are just the A’s and B’s, and if you got through half the list, you can easily see that there are three basic types of supporters: corporations that stand to make money off the tax increase, “green” groups that usually throw lawsuits and regulations in the way of expanding transportation infrastructure, and labor unions hoping that higher transportation taxes will mean more jobs for them.

You just don’t normally see the Heart Association, AARP, Blue Cross, the BlueGreen Alliance, the Bloomington Bicycle Alliance, and any group promoting “sustainability” pushing hard for an expansion of I-94. They are in it for reasons other than increasing mobility of people, goods, and services.

MoveMN is not pushing a plan to increase actual increased mobility for Minnesotans, if mobility is defined as most of us think about it: getting people, things and services from where they are to where they need to be as quickly and efficiently as possible. They are instead a coalition of interested parties who will get either a good chunk of change from the $700 million a year or will be given victories in ideological battles they have been fighting for decades — or even just nice amenities that they hope others will pay for.

No gas tax increase should ever be considered for projects promoted by people trying to get you out of your car; that should be a given. When “green,” “sustainable,” “bicycle,” and “pedestrian” are words that bring smiles to the faces of those talking about transportation funding, legislators should run screaming in the other direction.

We’ve been down this road before, and it ends very badly. During the Northstar Corridor battle, advocates promised that the commuter train line would free up badly needed highway lanes by taking people off the road. In fact, they promised that it would be the equivalent of adding a lane and a half of capacity each rush hour.

Those promises were false. They were false when they were made, and are now proven to be false. In fact, one of the groups most vociferous about adding lane capacity is the I-94 Coalition, whose problems would have been solved if Northstar had delivered on its promises.

Minnesotans enjoy their walking paths, their bicycle paths, trails, and other similar amenities. But they are not vital parts of our transportation infrastructure, and none but the heartiest of souls would consider commuting or shopping using them in the worst of our weather. In short, they may improve our mood and our health, but they are not vital parts of our transportation network. They are amenities, not infrastructure.

And MoveMN’s $700 million a year “transportation” tax increase alliance is built on the promise to use funds that most Minnesotans believe would improve infrastructure, while in fact way too much of it would not be.

The last time the gas tax was increased, it passed because the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce gave it a big push despite the fact that the governor opposed it. This time around they are opposing the increase, because the promises that were made about spending the money wisely weren’t kept. They don’t deny the importance of transportation infrastructure — their businesses are often made or broken on the reliability of that system, and they have proven their willingness to kick in.

But when the powers that be have proven that their main concern isn’t increasing mobility, but rather spreading money around to unions and big business, bike enthusiasts and people who want nice walking paths, they know that moving people and things efficiently is not the main goal.

Until the Department of Transportation, the governor, and the activists are willing to prove that they intend to keep the main thing the main thing when it comes to building transportation infrastructure, they should be sent back out the door and told to fix the potholes with the billions of dollars they already receive.


David Strom is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, and Principal of Think Write Do, a consulting firm.

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