Don’t let Minnesota lawmakers politicize road projects

Published 9:56 am Thursday, September 29, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

Bipartisan accord on anything pertaining to transportation funding at the Minnesota Legislature is so rare that when it appears, it warrants notice. That’s why we were drawn to a letter circulated by Gov. Mark Dayton last week that was signed by 11 current and past chairs of legislative transportation committees — eight DFLers, three Republicans.

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In the Aug. 12 letter, these seasoned transportation policy stewards warned against the approach to transportation funding taken by this year’s House Republican majority — and embraced by the majority of Senate DFLers who voted for the ultimately unsuccessful bonding/transportation bill. The controversial approach is known in lawmaking parlance as earmarking. It allows legislators to choose which construction projects receive state funds, supplanting the decisions otherwise made by state Department of Transportation (MnDOT) professionals based on quantifiable criteria spelled out in state and federal law.

A bill containing earmarks totaling $300 million for highways died in the session’s final minutes on May 22. Its revival was attempted sporadically all summer, only to be abandoned by Dayton last Friday, likely for the year. In a letter to legislative leaders, the DFL governor cited an impasse over highway earmarking as a key obstacle to an agreement and a special session. Dayton agrees with the transportation committee chairs, and with us: Letting politicians decide where and when to spend highway money is unwise, and should be avoided.

House Republicans embraced earmarking in earnest this year, but they are neither the first nor the only party to employ it. A memorable precedent was set by a DFL-controlled Legislature in 2008. It included earmarked funds for Hwy. 60 in the 2008 transportation bill, in a transparent and successful attempt to secure the vote of GOP Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake for the DFL-designed measure.

What ensued in 2008 illustrates the problem with politicizing highway construction. MnDOT, led by a commissioner appointed by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, was slow to start work on Hwy. 60 and was accused of political retribution. Other Minnesotans were left to wonder whether road conditions or political calculations were guiding construction schedules.

Defenders of earmarking argue that MnDOT’s selection process has not served the state well. They point to a March 2016 report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor that faulted MnDOT for failing to provide the public with enough information about how it makes its choices. Further, the auditor found that Corridors of Commerce, a funding stream created in 2013 to accelerate upgrades for roads used to haul commercial products, needs “greater objectivity and transparency.”

But that finding is an argument for more disclosure and clearer program eligibility criteria — not for substituting politicians’ judgments for those of MnDOT professionals. That’s what the former and current committee chairs argued in their Aug. 12 letter. They noted that transparency was not served in May when 13 highway earmarks appeared in the bonding/transportation bill in the final hours of the legislative session.

“We start down a very dangerous path when we begin to name projects in law,” the letter said. Roads that lack a political protector will be at risk of sinking further into disrepair. “This is a clear setup for annual battles between legislative districts and can only result in deepening partisan rifts.”

They aren’t alone in that judgment. On Thursday, the mayors of New Ulm and North Mankato and other civic leaders in the region served by Hwy. 14 plan a news conference in Mankato to advocate not for an earmark — though one was included in the stalled 2016 bill — but for a long-term funding increase that improves MnDOT’s administration of the Corridors of Commerce program. That’s a message the 2017 Legislature should heed.