ST.PAUL - Minnesota drivers who are fed up with potholed pavements or time-wasting traffic jams know that many of the state’s roads and bridges are in bad shape and getting worse.
The state’s top Democratic and Republican elected leaders feel your pain. “We agree that we need more road and bridge funding,” outgoing GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt said last week.
But the parties’ leaders continue to disagree on how to pay for transportation improvements.
Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Walz and the head honchos in the newly elected House DFL majority want to raise gas taxes or other fees to finance infrastructure repairs and upgrades.
After state finance officials recently forecast a $1.5 billion budget surplus, Republican legislative leaders asserted a gas tax increase is unnecessary. “We don’t want to pay more at the pump,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.
Instead, he and other GOP leaders call for spending more of the state’s income and sales tax revenue on transportation, a shift Democrats contend would take money away from education, health and other services financed through the state’s general fund.
Those are the same arguments that have stymied action at the Capitol ever since Gov. Mark Dayton first proposed a gas tax increase four years ago.
What are the chances state policymakers will break that logjam in 2019?
Not good, based on past performances. At the start of most recent legislative sessions, leaders from both parties have talked optimistically about cooperating to improve the state’s transportation systems, but in the end they have not agreed on long-term solutions.
Nonetheless, the new governor is eager to give it another try.
“The majority of Minnesotans support a modest gas tax increase, because they know it is a way to repair our crumbling infrastructure while protecting our state’s fiscal stability,” Walz’s spokeswoman Kayla Castaneda told the Pioneer Press. “The governor-elect is confident he can work with legislators on both sides of the aisle to find common ground and get this done for Minnesotans.”
He will have the new House DFL majority on his side, but Senate Republicans, who control that chamber by a one-vote majority, remain opposed to any tax increases.
Minnesota hasn’t raised its gas tax since 2008 when, a year after the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, lawmakers passed a plan to gradually raise the tax from 20 cents a gallon to the current 28.6 cents.
Meanwhile, other states were boosting gas taxes. Since 2013, 28 states and the District of Columbia increased their fuel taxes or adjusted their tax formulas to raise more transportation revenue, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Yet gas tax revenue is expected to fall as motor vehicles become more fuel efficient. Drivers now travel more miles on each gallon of gas than they did just a few years ago, and experts predict that by 2040 more than half of all new car sales will be electric.
That’s one reason why state Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, opposes increasing the gas tax. “The gas tax is out of date,” he said. Newman also says Minnesotans are already taxed “an awful lot.”
Newman will propose shifting more money from the state’s projected $48 billion general fund budget for the next two years to transportation projects.
“People who drive cars are funding the vast majority of our transportation system, but everyone, whether you drive a car or not, benefits from a good transportation system,” he said.
Some Minnesota transportation advocates see glimpses of hope this time around.
“I think what may have changed is having legislative leaders and a new governor who will make this (transportation funding) more of a priority,” said Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a coalition of governments, contractors, unions and other entities that support more road and bridge spending.
Donahoe envisions a possible deal in which Walz and DFL lawmakers agree to shift more existing tax revenue to roads and bridges in exchange for Republicans accepting a modest gas tax increase.