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Transportation financing plan appears unlikely in special session

Gas prices are shown at a TA Travel Center in Rogers near Highway 101 and Interstate 94. A new transportation proposal put forward by Democrats would increase the state’s per gallon gas tax by 10 cents. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Gas prices are shown at a TA Travel Center in Rogers near Highway 101 and Interstate 94. A new transportation proposal put forward by Democrats would increase the state’s per gallon gas tax by 10 cents. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

A push to consider a long-term transportation funding solution in the upcoming special session of the Minnesota Legislature may be a long shot.

While the governor, House and Senate all aimed to pass a long-term funding plan in 2015, they ended the session with a “lights on” bill for the state’s roads, bridges and transit because they were unable to agree on a funding mechanism.

Hoping to break through gridlock, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, unveiled a “compromise” plan on Friday. The plan leaves out a divisive new wholesale gas tax and includes other measures favored by Republicans. They pushed for transportation to be considered again in the special session.

But so far, the idea hasn’t received any acknowledgment from the governor or Legislative leadership, Dibble said in an interview Monday, calling transportation a “long shot” for the special session. He said he would push for a second special session to see if lawmakers are serious about addressing transportation.

Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leadership in both parties have not yet reached an agreement on the date and agenda for the upcoming special session. Their work may be narrowly focused on the three budget bills that need to pass to avoid a partial government shutdown – education, jobs and energy, and agriculture and environment.

If elected officials don’t address transportation soon, Dibble said it could be at least three years before the timing is right again.

While he’s open to the idea, Dibble said he’s doubtful that lawmakers will be able to fund transportation in an election year, especially if they couldn’t come to an agreement in 2015, which was supposed to be the “Transportation Session.” He questioned whether anyone was serious about finding more revenue for transportation or if it was all rhetoric.

“If it’s so important, let’s get to it,” he said. “Let’s just do it.”

The new funding proposal calls for a 10-cent increase to the current gas tax, rather than a sales tax on fuel at the wholesale level, to generate another $300 million per year. It also includes putting some transportation-related sales taxes from the general fund into roads and bridges – a move backed by Republicans earlier in the session.

The plan also includes a seven-county sales tax increase – either a half-cent or ¾-cent – for transit in the metro area. If the ¾-cent sales tax is enacted, counties would be able to use a portion of the revenue for road projects as well.

“We are literally meeting the Republicans halfway,” Hornstein said in a statement. “While we still have concerns about taking revenue from the general fund, we want to move forward in the interests of the state and achieve a fair compromise.”

A representative for Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, who chairs the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, said he was not available for comment Monday.

Swapping one gas tax for another is unlikely to win the support of one major stakeholder – the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. The statewide business advocacy organization has pushed for a long-term funding solution that does not rely on tax increases. The chamber’s position on gas tax increases is unlikely to change in the near future, said Bentley Graves, the group’s transportation policy director.

While it’s a positive sign that lawmakers are continuing the conversation on transportation, Graves said there may be too much ground to cover during a limited special session.

“It’s helpful to see some of these new proposals out there, but there’s still a ways to go to bridge the gap,” he said.

The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce favors a gas tax increase over a new wholesale fuel tax because it’s more transparent at the pump, said president Matt Kramer.

Like Graves, Kramer was pleased to see more ideas to pay for transportation, but it may be “too little too late,” he said.

“I just don’t see them covering transportation in a one-day special session,” Kramer said.


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