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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Will Transportation be Better Under Mike Hatch than Tim Pawlenty?

According to the Strib, Mike Hatch is on record against the gas tax.

Lori Sturdevant has a thoughtful oped that addresses this issue.

Conspicuous in its absence from the big blue Minnesota map the House DFL Caucus filled with campaign buzzwords is any term synonymous with "transportation."

When I called the omission to the attention of caucus leader Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, she had a ready explanation:

"We're waiting to see what the voters do with MVST."

MVST (say "M-vest" to sound like a Capitol groupie) is the state's motor vehicle sales tax, the 6.5 percent tacked onto the price of every vehicle sold in Minnesota.

It's the tax in question on the one and only constitutional amendment proposal on the Nov. 7 ballot -- the wordy one that would dedicate all MVST revenue to transportation, and at least two-fifths of it to mass transit, by 2011. That would mean moving $300 million now being spent on the usual stuff -- education, nursing home care and the rest -- to transportation. It doesn't specify how the hole that results in the general fund will be filled.

"MVST becomes either the anchor piece" of a package of new transportation investments, "or we have to start again," Kelliher said. The omission from the issues list "doesn't mean we don't think transportation is an important issue. We know it is."

I will be voting NO on MVST and urge everyone else to do the same. Legislators are elected to make these decisions, and they should be making this decision.

Still, Kelliher's response was encouraging, compared with the growls that emanated from some DFLers after last year's big-as-a-bus transportation bill died. After Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill that most DFLers and 10 brave House Republicans backed, some DFL legislators folded their arms, sat back and said, "Fine, Governor. We passed our plan to get traffic moving. You killed it. We're done."

And they were, for 2006. Transportation funding measures went nowhere in the even-year session.

But now there are two candidates for governor who are not keen on raising the road-specific gasoline tax -- and one of them is DFLer Mike Hatch. That might be another reason for a new House DFL leader to play it cool and coy on transportation funding promises.

"Our caucus recognizes it's important to pass legislation that the governor -- a governor -- will sign," Kelliher said.

A lot of legislative candidates, in both parties, are tap-dancing on transportation this fall -- or so it seemed to the moderator (me) at last Wednesday's 19-candidate forum in Burnsville on the issue, sponsored by the I-35W Solutions Alliance.

Only a few of the 10 incumbent Republicans there flat-out rejected the idea of raising the gas tax, to bite off a bigger piece of the billion-dollar-per-year price tag of holding the line on highway congestion and safety. One Republican -- Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington -- has already voted for a 10-cent boost in the state's 20-cent tax. Another, Sen. Claire Robling of Jordan, said plainly that she could go for a 7-cent boost, phased in over a few years.

But two years ago, most DFL candidates stood boldly for a gas tax increase. This time around, the DFLers, all nine of them challengers, were less specific.

If that means that some of the partisan starch has been washed out of this issue, that's positive. The way transportation divides legislators on metro/rural lines makes accord hard enough to achieve. The partisan colors that transportation -- especially transit -- acquired in the late 1990s has made legislative action ever since resemble traffic flow through Spaghetti Junction at rush hour.

Why is it that the DFLers are going to be better on transportation?

Sturdevant ends with:

About one thing, the candidates in Burnsville were very clear: They want the MVST dedication to pass. That's so, despite a few principled qualms about the damage dedicated taxes do to both the ideal of representative government and the rest of the state budget.

I've got those qualms too. But unless Minnesota's infrastructure decline is arrested soon, a broader decline will follow. If legislators insist on asking the voters, "Captain, may I?" before doing their duty on transportation, voters should reply, "Yes, you may! And don't ask again. Get busy!"

Voters should reply, NO. I elected you to make these decisions. Make them. Don't do this through the constitution.

It's very clear that if people are really concerned about this issue, Mike Hatch won't make the tough decisions designed to prevent a Crosstown project problem. Mike Hatch's "we'll find savings by audits" isn't an answer to everything.