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Transportation amendmentcontinues to get mixed reviews

By Matthew Stolle

mstolle@postbulletin.com

When voters go to the polls Tuesday, they will decide a question usually reserved for the state Legislature: Whether hundreds of millions of dollars should be exclusively dedicated to highways and transit.

A "yes" vote would lead to a change in the state’s constitution and pump an extra $300 million into transportation projects. Transportation experts say such a financial infusion is needed to address what they describe as a backlog of projects amounting to $1.5 billion in unmet need a year.

Currently, 54 percent of revenue generated from sales taxes on new and used cars goes to transportation, while 46 percent ends up in the general fund. The Motor Vehicle Sales Tax amendment would dedicate all such money into transportation.

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But the ballot question is getting mixed reviews. The city of Rochester has taken no formal position on the question, but the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, of which Rochester is the largest member, has. It opposes the initiative, while the Olmsted County Board of Commissioners has endorsed it.

To pass, the amendment needs a majority of those going to the polls in that election to vote yes. A voter is considered to have rejected the amendment if the question is left unanswered.

Mike Sheehan, Olmsted County engineer, said passage of the amendment would mean an extra $800,000 a year for the county. That’s still far short of the $10 million the county says it needs to maintain its transportation network, "but it’s at least a step in the right direction," he said.

Sheehan compares the state with Wisconsin to illustrate how Minnesota has fallen behind in transportation funding. Back in 1988, when both enacted a 20 cent gas tax, Wisconsin indexed its gas tax to inflation, while Minnesota did not. The result is that Wisconsin’s gas tax is at 32 cents now while Minnesota’s has remained at 20 cents.

The $300 million in extra funding for transit and highways equals a 5-to-6 cent boost in the gas tax, he said.

"If it doesn’t pass, those dollars in my opinion are going to have to come from the property tax," Sheehan said.

Gary Neumann, Rochester city administrator, says the city has not formally taken a position on the amendment, but it has concerns.

One concern is the cost of the amendment. It’s not free. Passage of it will mean a transfer of $300 million from the general fund to transportation over time. The general fund is used to pay for schools, local government aid, nursing homes and health care programs.

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So the question becomes whether the state’s budget, which is projecting a surplus, will grow enough to fill the void created by the transfer or whether "we are going to raise taxes or cut programs," Neumann said.

Sheehan notes that the shift involves a five-year phase-in of about $60 million a year until it reaches $300 million.

"There’s a projected growth in the budget of around $600 million, so we’re not taking money out of the existing general fund," Sheehan said.

Neumann also argues that there is nothing that prevents legislators from acting in the next legislative session and adequately funding transportation without resorting to changing the constitution.

"There is no dire need to do this through the constitution if the legislators and elected officials on the state level would make the decision on transportation funding," Neumann said.

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