House passes GOP funding plan for roads

Published 9:58 am Wednesday, April 22, 2015

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota House staked out a position Tuesday in a debate over long-term transportation funding with a 10-year, $7 billion plan that avoids a gas-tax increase.

The 73-59 vote in which one Democrat joined all Republicans in favor is far from the final word. The Democratic-led Senate has yet to vote on its proposal that includes a new fuel tax, something Gov. Mark Dayton has also called for.

The House bill would redirect existing taxes on auto parts, vehicle leases and car rentals to highway construction and borrow billions more. All of the plans are aimed at tackling hundreds of projects, from road resurfacing to lane expansions to new bridges.

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House Transportation Committee Chairman Tim Kelly, a Red Wing Republican, said pinning Minnesota’s road fixes on a volatile revenue source like gasoline taxes relies on antiquated thinking. He said it makes more sense to tap predictable taxes the state already collects and to use some of the budget surplus. His plan would also force the transportation department to squeeze more out of the dollars it gets.

“If ever there was a time for a new way of thinking and a new way of delivering transportation, it’s now,” Kelly said.

Although gas tax receipts are constitutionally dedicated to transportation needs, independent polling has shown the call to hike them is politically unpopular. No House Democrat offered an amendment to add one to the bill nor did Republicans force a vote on it to pin down every lawmaker.

But the Republican drive to shift auto-related taxes to a new transportation account would put road work into direct competition with other state programs, such as education and health care. And the bill’s $1.3 billion in borrowing — not counting additional road borrowing the GOP is pledging to pass next year — carries tens of millions in interest costs.

Minority House Democrats keyed in on the tax shifts, saying the road money would be tempting to draw down if budget deficits return. “It’s a house of cards, and all it is going to take is the slightest breeze to knock it down,” said Democratic Rep. Joe Atkins of Inver Grove Heights.

They criticized as inadequate the $5 million it directs to improving railroad crossings to add safety measures, especially as more oil-tanker cars roll from North Dakota through Minnesota. More than 300,000 people in the state live within a half-mile of a railroad track.