Column: Duluthians OK more for streets, and gas tax may be an answerSo a slim majority of Duluthians would be willing to pay up to $10 a month to fix Duluth’s streets. That’s according to a recent survey that, although it sampled the views of only 491 residents, sounds about right to me.
So a slim majority of Duluthians would be willing to pay up to $10 a month to fix Duluth’s streets. That’s according to a recent survey that, although it sampled the views of only 491 residents, sounds about right to me.
There’s no doubt that city streets are in terrible shape, so these results give political cover to elected officials who’d vote to increase taxes to improve them.
Duluthians approved a property tax increase to improve city parks (and indirectly library services) two years ago — and they did that at the same election in which they rejected three special-levy requests for local schools.
Presumably the same kind of special levy for streets might have a chance. Another possible source for money — and one I was unaware of until doing research for this column — could come through the state gas tax (more on that later).
I’ve lamented several times in this column that the formula for distributing the gas tax is in the state constitution and thus difficult to change.
Minnesota voters agreed by a nearly 5-1 ratio to stick that formula into the constitution in 1956. I was around then but can’t recall the pitch for this change. I assume voters and lawmakers agreed to it fearing “undependable” future legislators might work against their favored roads.
It was a big mistake to put this in the constitution, which hasn’t stopped this kind of thing from happening occasionally since then. The formula for distributing proceeds of the Minnesota Lottery is locked up in the constitution also — as is a sales-tax increase agreed to by voters in 2008 for environmental and cultural projects.
Opponents of same-sex marriage tried to put the definition of marriage into the constitution in 2012. Thankfully that effort failed — and may have helped push the 2013 legislation that now allows same-sex marriage.
Locking any kind of tax distribution into the constitution essentially represents lawmakers and voters at one time saying they know best what Minnesotans should do long into the future.
I remember riding to the Twin Cities in the 1950s and you mostly drove through farm country until you were suddenly in Minneapolis or St. Paul. Now there are many suburbs to drive through, and it’s hard to know when you’ve left them and entered the two big cities.
Driving patterns and gas-tax needs have changed a lot since 1956, but the formula for distributing its revenues is still 62 percent for the state highway fund, 29 percent for the county state-aid roads and 9 percent for municipal state-aid roads.
Yes, some of that 62 percent ends up improving roads in Duluth, a few major ones that are in good shape. But the formula for changing needs has itself been unchanged for 57 years.
But my recent research found one part of that legislation that could help Duluth and other cities fix their streets. It says legislators can vote to take up to 5 percent of the gas tax money and give it to any of the three recipients.
I don’t know whether lawmakers would go for this or whether a full
5 percent would be needed to improve city streets, but Duluth’s legislative delegation should look into the prospects. Rural lawmakers were a real power in the legislature in 1956, but most Minnesotans now live in cities or suburbs. So this idea should have a political chance.
The same survey that showed 51 percent of city residents either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” spending up to $10 a month to fix our streets also sampled residents’ views on Mayor Don Ness.
A full 90 percent approved of his performance, a level I’ve never heard of for an elected official. The fact of such high support from people who must navigate pothole-filled streets shows that they know Hizzoner is seeking solutions.
Until the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe reneged on an agreement to share Fond-du-Luth Casino revenues with the city, Duluth had a good source of street-repair dollars. Ness has the city in court now trying to return that source of money — and looking for other ways to keep our roads navigable.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth
for many years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.