To the level of confidence expressed by the chairs of the Minnesota House and Senate transportation committees about prospects for a transportation bill in the coming legislative session, you can add one word: “very.”
In interviews this week, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, each said he is feeling very optimistic about a transportation bill’s chances during the legislative session that starts March 8.
“I feel like positions and postures are points of leverage for negotiations,” Dibble said. “No one is philosophically dead set against it.”
The sunniness of their shared outlook for passing what Dibble terms a “comprehensive, ambitious, aspirational … transportation bill for the coming generation” seems only to have grown over the months since the Legislature ended its regular session last May and its special session in June.
The 2015 regular session ended with passage of only a $5.5 billion “lights on” transportation funding package — not the long-term solution all sides agree is needed. As disappointing as that was for many, Kelly said Tuesday he never expected a full transportation bill to pass during the five-month 2015 session.
In October, Kelly said in an interview that the two were “on the same page” and had “committed … to have plenty of conversation.” Dibble’s outlook wasn’t quite as rosy: “I hope it doesn’t become simply another thing that we lock up on and turn into some sort of partisan volleyball game and project it into the elections.”
In November, Dibble said his estimate for a transportation bill in 2016, on a scale from 0 to 100, had risen from below 50 at the end of the session to about 65 percent. Kelly already was putting prospects as close to 100 as they could get.
The pair have continued meeting over coffee to hash out details during the long interim between sessions, as well as, Dibble said, being “in frequent communication” with administration officials including Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and others at the governor’s office and agency staff members.
Citing “several good chats” recently, Dibble said negotiations “could get to yes on both sides very quickly, if it was just the two of us. … We could write the bill in less than five minutes.”
Kelly concurred that after having met “numerous times,” he and Dibble “are in agreement to the point where we feel we can work within our conference committee. … It’s coming together very nicely.”
Complicating that picture, potentially, are the unpredictable political realities of a compressed session.
“We have all these other dynamics, caucuses, leadership, stuff outside the transportation committees,” said Dibble.
“You get things thrown at you,” said Kelly. “New ideas, some people want to beat the gas-tax drum, issues that seem to be at an impasse.”
Last month there seemed to be a milestone when, at the announcement of the November budget forecast, Gov. Mark Dayton pronounced Democrats’ favored funding source — a 10-cent increase in the gas tax — “dead.”
But Dibble said he didn’t hear Dayton quite that way: “The gas tax is alive, absolutely,” Dibble said. Dayton didn’t say he was against the tax, Dibble said, only that House Republicans are “adamant” in their opposition. “Other than that announcement, he’ll support a gas tax. He’ll sign a gas tax.”
Another potential hang-up — funding for transit, particularly in the Twin Cities metro area — isn’t necessarily the insurmountable obstacle some might think it is, Kelly said.
“Transit is the critical piece, some might say impasse, but we never had a chance to debate it,” Kelly said. Legislators simply ran out of time in the 2015 regular session, he said, and have “no qualms” about discussing transit in the context of addressing needs for theentire state.
Dibble warned that the Southwest Light Rail Transit project could stand to lose its other sources of funding without a metropolitan sales tax. He urged groups such as the Twin West Chamber of Commerce to get busy this session advocating for the project. “If we don’t get a sales tax in the metro area there will be no Southwest LRT,” Dibble said. “It’s not going to be in a bonding bill.”
Neither transportation committee chair seemed rattled by the shortness of the list of road and bridge projects in Dayton’s proposed $1.4 billion bonding package, announced last week. Dibble said there is usually very little from the state’s general fund or general obligation bonds for local roads and bridges. The feeling, he said, is “If we want to do transportation, let’s do a transportation bill.”
A bill passed by the Senate remains in conference committee that is currently in recess, ready to reconvene. Besides Dibble and Kelly, the conference committee’s members are Sens. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, and Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing; and Reps. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, and Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina.
“It’s on all of us if we don’t get this done,” Kelly said. “Everybody campaigned on it, and we all need it.”