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Chamber cool to more transportation taxes

A Minnesota Chamber of Commerce survey finds that a majority of respondents don’t think the state needs more money for transportation.

The “Business Barometer Survey” — sponsored by the chamber and Minneapolis-based Himle Rapp & Co. — was released Wednesday as other groups are making the case for a $743 million transportation funding package.

The chamber’s survey found little appetite for higher transportation taxes — at least in theory:

  • 75 percent think the current highway and transit system will serve their business needs during the next 10 years.
  • 57 percent don’t think the state needs additional revenue to make transportation investments, compared with 32 percent who do think the state needs more revenue.

Earlier this year, a group called Move Minnesota launched an effort to bring in more money for transportation by adding new taxes, increasing other taxes and making other changes. The additional money would be used for roads, bridges, transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

The results were mixed for individual components of the Move Minnesota plan even among those who support additional transportation revenue. Of those who favored a funding increase, about 55 percent opposed a 14-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase, which is comparable to the organization’s proposed 5 percent sales tax on wholesale fuel that would raise an estimated $360 million for roads.

But 64 percent of those who favored an increase supported a 0.75 percentage point increase in the metro-area sales tax, which would raise as much as $335 million more for transit.

Move Minnesota leaders could not immediately be reached for comment.

Other transportation proposals that were not included in the Move Minnesota plan received favorable reviews from those who think the system needs more money. About 70 percent of that subset of the survey supported an increase in license tab fees for roads and transit, while 61 percent backed an increase in local property taxes to fund improvements. Toll roads, though, were supported by only 43 percent of the respondents who favored increasing transportation funding.

In 2008, the Minnesota chamber was instrumental in organizing support around a transportation funding plan that included an 8.5-cent gas tax increase. Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the legislation. With the chamber’s advocacy, supporters had enough votes in the Legislature to override the governor. The legislation was enacted several months after an Interstate 35W bridge collapsed over the Mississippi River in August 2007 in Minneapolis.

The chamber has been slow to sign on to the latest Move Minnesota effort — in part because it was more focused during the 2014 session on repealing unrelated tax increases and ensuring existing money is being spent wisely.

“The bottom line is businesses know that they need a great transportation system to have a successful business in the state of Minnesota,” said Bill Blazar, the chamber’s interim president. “But that is tempered by the limits on their pocketbook.”

The survey won’t dictate the chamber’s position on transportation funding, he said. But it will be considered as the chamber decides which policies to back.

The survey, conducted in July and August by Minneapolis-based Morris Leatherman, involved a random sample of owners or managers of 350 Minnesota businesses with at least five employees. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.3 percentage points. Businesses in the seven-county metro accounted for 53 percent of the respondents.

About 46 percent of respondents said the overall economy is getting better, compared with 43 percent who said it’s about the same. The biggest complaint was high taxes, which 46 percent picked as the top barrier to job creation.

“You put the experience of 2008 and the policies of recent years together, and it’s hard to be exuberant,” Blazar said.

Even so, 53 percent of respondents said the state has a good business climate. That matches economic indicators that Katie Clark Sieben, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said rank Minnesota as one of the top-performing states. The state’s 4.3 percent unemployment rate was sixth-lowest in the nation, and job openings are the highest in 13 years, she said.

“All these factors are pointing to a very healthy economy in Minnesota,” she said.

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