Senate Republicans offer solution to transportation jam
By Lenora Chu
The Senate Republican caucus offered Thursday what they are calling a "middle of the road" solution to a stalemate in the House-Senate transportation conference committee.
Members have argued for weeks about whether to increase the state gas tax and how to split funding dollars between metro transit and roads and highways in other parts of the state.
The Senate Republican plan calls for almost $3.3 billion in new road funding and $780 million for metro bus transit during the next 10 years, in total about $1 billion less than the Senate's original $5 billion transportation funding bill.
The plan would also increase the gas tax by 4 cents per gallon, coming down from the 6-cent proposed increase passed in the Senate's transportation bill earlier in the session.
"We get banged around a lot for saying the gas tax is the way to go -- we know that," said Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, a Republican from Owatonna, "but we also know this is the way to go to start solving the problems of Minnesota."
The Senate minority plan would also transfer 44 percent of the state's motor vehicle sales tax revenue -- about $299 million a year -- into transportation funding, which would be divided in an 80-20 split between roads and transit. Voters would have the power to approve or reject this provision in the 2004 general election.
House conferees have not compromised the size of their $750 million funding bill, which excludes metro transit and devotes almost the entire amount to solving metro-area traffic bottlenecks and improving state roads.
But after adamantly opposing a gas tax increase the entire session, House Republican conferees said Wednesday they might approve an increase if the revenue is used to accelerate highway projects when it became clear members must either compromise or go home without a transportation funding bill this year.
Rep. Bill Kuisle, a Republican from rural Rochester and co-chairman of the conference committee, said the Senate minority plan is "a start."
"It is movement by the Senate Republicans," he said, "but I'm not sure the House is going to go down that road. I'm not sure that could pass the House or Senate either."
Kuisle said he does not support allocating half of the revenue from an increased gas tax to the Minnesota Department of Transportation's state district budgets, which the Senate Republican plan does. Kuisle prefers to devote additional gas tax revenue to specific infrastructure projects, such as the U.S. 52 improvement project through Rochester.
The conference committee is not likely to meet until early next week to discuss how to proceed.