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Our View: Getting antsy for a transportation bill

With so much wailing over so little getting done in St. Paul, over the very real prospect of no transportation bill and no bonding bill even though this is a bonding-bill year, and over the seemingly increasing likelihood of a do-nothing 2016 Leg...

Cartoonist's View
(Mike Keefe / Cagle Cartoons)

With so much wailing over so little getting done in St. Paul, over the very real prospect of no transportation bill and no bonding bill even though this is a bonding-bill year, and over the seemingly increasing likelihood of a do-nothing 2016 Legislature, Minnesota Chamber President Doug Loon is a welcome break in the clouds.
“They’re at it, and they’re at that stage, you know, where they go from posturing and positioning to now actually having serious discussions. We’re going to start seeing results - very quickly,” Loon said in an interview this week with the News Tribune editorial board. “I’m optimistic, absolutely. Or maybe I’m too naive to know any better.”
Others aren’t nearly as optimistic that legislative results are imminent. Most others are skeptical - and rightly so.
The Minnesota chamber and 44 local chambers from around the state seemed skeptical, too, just 10 days ago when they sent an open letter to the Legislature urging passage of funding for roads, bridges and transit. This session. Now.
A transportation bill didn’t get done last year. It has to get done this year, one would think, lest we fall further behind with critically needed repairs. Lawmakers have a responsibility they can’t ignore to maintain and keep safe public amenities.
A transportation bill and bonding bill are intertwined. Both are critical. Both would benefit Minnesotans. But the transportation bill, it seems, needs to get done first.
“Transportation - roads, bridges and transit - is essential to a healthy, vibrant business climate in Minnesota,” read the letter from the chambers, including the chambers in Cloquet, Duluth, Grand Rapids, Hibbing and International Falls. “Investing in economic and physical infrastructure is essential to making Minnesota ready for the future, ready for change and ready to grow.”
An uneasiness that the Legislature will fail to address transportation needs this session prompted a plethora of pleas directed at lawmakers this week.
“I can tell you that the citizens in Greater Minnesota want results from our legislators and they won’t be satisfied if nothing gets done,” LeSueur Mayor and Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities President Robert Broeder said in a statement from the coalition.
“If there is one issue that unites mayors from all parts of the state and all political persuasions, it’s transportation,” Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski said in a statement. “We all want the Legislature to get serious. … The days are winding down, but there is still plenty of time for this to be a ‘do-something’ session.”
“Transportation is a key function of government outlined in our state’s Constitution. We need the Legislature to act this session,” Roseau County Commissioner Jack Swanson said in a statement released by the Association of Minnesota Counties.
The need to invest in roads and bridges is undeniable. It has been studied to death. It just hasn’t been funded adequately. The state spends about $500 million to $600 million a year fixing highways and bridges. But that’s about $250 million a year less than what’s needed just to maintain what’s in place. And it’s about $600 million a year over the next 10 years short of what ideally should be spent, according to the findings of a transportation finance advisory committee.
The need is great. The political will hasn’t been.
That’s despite consensus from the governor, Senate DFLers, House Republicans and others that additional funding is critically necessary. The disagreement comes with how to pay for it, whether by tapping the budget surplus, cutting elsewhere from the state’s budget, or increasing Minnesota’s three constitutionally dedicated transportation funding sources: the gas tax, license tab fees and the motor vehicle sales tax. Expenses seem great enough for an all-of-the-above approach, one DFLers and Republicans alike could agree to even if neither is entirely thrilled.
That’s called compromise. Minnesotans should be able to expect compromise.
Doing nothing this session would be unacceptable, though many fear that is what will happen.
Except not Loon.
“The opportunity is here. Politics is lining up to get the job done. The business community is behind it. And investing more in roads and bridges and transit increases our ability to remain competitive as a state,” the Minnesota Chamber president said. “I think it’s doable.”
Minnesotans can hope he’s right. And not just naive.

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