MPR Decoder: Broken Bridge = Gas Tax?

As Laurie Blake reports, a gas tax is a near certainty in a special session likely to take place in September. After years of trying to pass a gas tax, having it vetoed, and coming within a vote or two of getting one enacted, it looks like the Minnesota political standoff has reached a tipping point (after I 35W tipped into the river).

MPR's midday (blissfully free of Gary Eichten) had a whole show with the leaders of the legislature talking about the gas tax, without really mentioning it too many times. Apparently the only question now is, how big will it be?

The way I read this: the DFL knows they have all the political cover they need to pass a gas tax and not take any heat for it. Pretty much the only political angle for the Republicans is to accuse the Democrats of 'politicizing the issue,' kind of like what happened at Wellstone's funeral. So the DFL is going to stay very, very far away from saying anything negative about Pawlenty or the House leadership, and instead repeat over and over again how important it is to 'fund long term investment' to keep our roads 'safe'. They can't really lose with that.

Usually in these special sessions, the Governor and the two leaders of the House and Senate meet in advance of the session and agree to agree on the one or two needed bills, so that the legislative session itself is kind of a perfunctory formality. I'm not sure if this session will be like that, though, because it sounds like the DFL is going to try and have a larger agenda, not only to pass as large of a (political heat-free) gas tax as they can, but also to include some of the LGA restoration (aid money to cities) that the governor vetoed this spring.

Here's a terribly rough transcription, with most of the fluff edited out, and some editorial commentary.

Speaker of the MN House, Margaret Anderson Kelliher (MAK): We need to come up with a 10% match on federal money, and it might even be higher... The debate about congestion has changed to a life and safety debate -- and I don't think its a debate any more. [Meaning: I don't even think Marty's bestest, most conservative friend Rep. Tom Emmer is stupid enough to stand there and say we don't need more money for roads when the freeway is laying in the river.]

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (MS): We certainly need to do a bill for overtime, a match of federal funds ... and then there's going to have to be an assessment done... [Meaning: We need more time for all this emotional political heat to cool down, before we try and minimize the tax increase.] We need to assess what the need is... We're not going to come rushing in... [Meaning: We're not going to be happy about passing a permanent gas tax in September]... It would be helpful to have hearings... [Meaning: Please give us more time] ... we do have a bonding capacity, many of those types of things so we have an analysis done and that it wouldn't drag on for a long time, come in and have swift action... [Meaning: Please no gas tax! You know how we hate taxes... We just want to pass a really quick appropriation of borrowed bonded money to look at a few bridges, and get out of there without having a long unwinnable debate about this.]

MAK: We'll be forming a joint House Senate committee to review information from the past, and examine further aspects from the I35 bridge... In 1997 the legislative auditor did a study of bridge and trunk highway system and looked at deficiencies and funding issues... We're going to ask them to begin work to update report... They wrote that 1997 it was $100 million, and now its over a billion... [Meaning: You want time to study the issue? I'm going to 'head you off at the pass' here and start studying the issue right now, so that when we have our session we'll already have a fresh report in our hands and can talk about the gas tax!]

MS: We can get money out to those folks that need it, but we don't have a firm idea of the amount of money... I want to help in what way I can on a transportation package that we can move a bill through quickly and get the governors signature on it and also some long term needs that we have... [Meaning: Pawlenty might veto something! We're not afraid to do it. (OK we are afraid, but we'll talk about it at least...)] We have to place life safety first... We're gonna have to look at some other mechanisms, the surplus or um other places to meet the immediate needs... [Meaning: Oh. I almost said the words Gas Tax. Don't make me say those words... it hurts... it hurts...]

State Senator Steve Murphy, Chair of the Transportation Committee (SM): We do know full well what the full impact is on our transportation system. Speaker Kelliher said that we're deficient over a billion dollars, and that's only on the trunk highway system... If you add everything up that number is 1.7 billion dollars of unmet need every year.... Clearly a third of our budget is in what I would consider a deficit situation, and we need to do something about filling up that hole... We need to make major strides, and it will take a tax increase. [Meaning: There's no way in hell, Marty, that you're going to get away with not passing a gas tax.]

MS: We all agree that the need is there. [Meaning: Even I, Marty Seifert, cannot say the words 'high tax state' when the freeway is laying in the river.] We had different bills before the leg, I had one, Rep. Bernie Lieder (Chair of the House Tranposrtation Commmitte) had one. I think we're all open minded in this situation to getting the critical needs taken care of first and foremost, and that would be the bridges, life, and safety as the speaker mentioned, and then moving forwards. I think there are preferences from different members that would like to see bonding and general fund dollars. [Meaning: Now that most of the moderates are gone from our caucus, I'm going to have a hell of a time trying to get them to stomach a gas tax increase.] The gas tax is obviously gonna be something that's there for us to use in this particular situation. And I'm open minded I'm not gonna close the door on anything. [Meaning: I can see the writing on the wall. This sucks.] ... The details are certainly gonna be hashed out ... A lot of people would say I don't know all the differences between bonding, general fund, and gas tax, but my guess would be end of the day when all this is done ... this is probably gonna be some type of a combination, with some focus on life and safety, dangerous intersections, and bridges... We really need to focus on those critical needs first and then moving out long term. [Meaning: OK OK OK, a gas tax. I get it. But it's going to be a small one, or Mary Liz Holberg will sic her dogs on me. Please, please don't make it a big gas tax? I beg you!]

CALLER: How are we going to pay for this? ... We've wasted government moeny on things like stadiums and the mall of america, and we needed that money for other things [Meaning: Hey did you notice that the interstate fell into the Mississippi for no reason? ... Wait, nevermind. The Twins are on TV. Go Twins!]

SM: We just have a terrible underfunding problem with transportation. We need to take a major stride at addressing that underfunding.... We need to have more money, and if that takes a tax increase to get it done, so be it.... Back in 1988 when we last increased the gas tax, that 20 cents was buying 17 cents worth of product. not its 12 or 13 cents because of inflation . And we can't continue to bond because that just takes away from our maintenance program. We need to have all those pots of money that go into transportation need to be increased so that none of them has to shoulder the burden 100 percent. What's paying for the majority of work right now is our property taxes, and we can't continue to do that. [Meaning: Big gas tax now. No ifs ands or buts. Don't say the world 'bonding' to me. I don't even want to hear the word 'bonding.']

MAK: In my time in the legislature we've had no less than 3 major transportation packages, two that have gone to the governor... [Meaning: It's pretty clear whose fault this is, and its not really mine.] We have an underinvestment issue. I believe that we need new revenue. It has been my position, the position of every member of the house DFL caucus, and many members of the house republican caucus, and I think the senate is on board completely for doing some raising of the user fee, which is the gas tax, that funds our roads. Folks are right to have some very strong feelings about this right now. My hope when we go into special session is that we don't only deal with the immediacy of this situation, but we get the job done on funding our transportation system overall. And i don't think that's that hard to do, when you look at the fact that there have been a number of packages that have already been publically vetted. [Meaning: This is as close as I'm going to get to blaming the governor. But its pretty much the governor's fault, and I'm not afraid to stoke the fires a bit and tell people about all the other transportation funding packages we tried to pass. Now though, we have the votes to pass this thing with or without the governor on board, so don't mess with me Marty Seifert.]

SM: I want to caution people about just dealing with the immediacy of this issue. this bridge didn't decide to fall on Wednesday out of the clear blue. We got here... We don't know yet, ... We need to wait for the NTSB to come back with a report so we know exactly what happened with that bridge. But that bridge didn't get into the position that we have where it needed continual maintanence... We didn't get there overnight. [Meaning: This is as close as I'm going to get to blaming the governor, too. It's pretty close though. I'm this far from blaming the governor. [holds fingers close together]] ... We need to look long term because this is going to e along fix for a lot o the other infrastructure that you hear about. Cancer doesn't happen overnight, and you don't cure it overnight. We're talking about a 10 year plan.... [Meaning: A cancer metaphor. Perfect!] We need long term plans to try to address this with large infusions of cash spread out over a period of time so we can address these issues so they don't become catastrophic at a later date. [Meaning: Yeah, I'm talking about a big gas tax.]

MPR reporter Mike Mulcahey (MM): Doens't this cause a criseis in confidence in our state government? [Meaning: Didn't you guys pretty seriously f' up here?]

MAK: It is difficult right now. I know minnesotans have their own anxieties about this. ... But its not enought for us to say we believe we have a good system. ... We're witholding the speculation part of this... But I do think its striking that this bridge is carrying a load of traffic that it wasn't designed for... It all poitns back to this very same question of an overall investment strategy.... We need to renew our committment to a long term strategy here. like SM said, nothing gets this way overnight. [Meaning: We seriously f'd up. Its pretty obvious that we f'd up.]

SM: We need to put the blame game behind us. now is the time to join hands and come up with a package that works for everybody. we can't continue to point the finger. ... When we heard this all of our hearts sank. There was a terrible feeling in the pit of our stomach that if we had started this 15 years ago possible this may have never happened. but overall we need a huge investment Mike. [Meaning: I f'd up too. If only I'd tried to blame the governor more often and more effectively in the past!]

CALLER: How are we gonna pay for all of this? What about overtime for police officers? The City of Minneapolis funding for police officers is already stretched thin. ... The LGA money is stretched tight...

MAK: There will be some significant costs here... I do think we saw an action this week what things like LGA goes to, sitting in that emergency command center the last two days, watching the coordinated command of the county and the state ... [Meaning: I'm still thinking about whether or not I can twist the governors arm even further here and try to get the LGA cuts restored. I'd like to, but I'll probably just use it as a bargaining chip instead, to get more gas tax money.]

MM: About that LGA issue... What about the governor's recent veto of the tax bill? A lot of cities are looking at a dismal budget situation, aren't they?

MAK: That's up in the air. I've never stopped talking to the gov about having a special session on the tax bill, on the vetoed small capital investment bill... I think we need to go back to those issues. as we ask local units of govt to go out with us to inspect bridges and safety. We need to understand that we're one Minnesota. You should be able to be anywhere in the state and have police, fire, safety, and have a good road to drive on. I think that's critical for the entire state. [Meaning: Damn straight. But there'll be plenty of time to use this bridge issue to restore LGA cuts later, and I don't think I'm going to try and do it now. That doesn't mean I won't talk about it, though. (See: chip, bargaining.)]


Steve Cuddihy said...

Let's spend another billion dollars on a light rail line and ignore the commuter roads and bridges. Let's scrap light rail all together and there would be no need for a gas tax.

I thought this blog was a twin cities sidewalk blog, not an editorial blog.

Andrew said...

Great Commentary as always Bill...where was LRT ever mentioned I'd like to ask?
The Gas Tax is constitutionaly dedicated to Roads and Highways ONLY, that is the "user fee" that the politicians were talking about. All of the money will go to improved roads and infrastructure. Bill hasn't posted something abut Mass Transit in a while.
No need to slander someone elses blog, go sling comments like yours at the Star Tribune where they belong.

Steve Cuddihy said...

I know he doesn't mention light rail in his editorial. This is my point....

"At least 40% of the sales and use tax dedicated to light rail" That constitutional amendment that passed in 2006. Let's use that 40% for the roads and bridges.

Or better yet, take the money for the new Twins stadium and use that for roads and bridges. I know he doesn't mention that stadium either, I'm just stating another example.

Simply put, there are too many pet feel good projects that have better funding and more attention than our transportation department.

I'm not slandering his blog, that's not my intent, I'm asking if this is a photo blog about Twin Cities sidewalks or an editorial blog?

Anonymous said...

Does it matter what "type" of blog it is? Isn't that the beauty of a blog - you can change it whenever you want? I really liked the editorial commentary given that I never get to listen to daytime MPR.

Anonymous said...

Tax man cometh, tax man taketh. I certainly hope not. We are taxed enough as it is. Perhaps if our tax dollar were spent on infrastructure rather than social re-engineering, we'd all be better for it.

Bill Lindeke said...

anon: What is "social engineering"? You'll have to explain that to me.

slinger: This blog is an infrastructure blog, meant to highlight the many forms of civic infrastructure that we all share... even though sidewalks are the primary focus, i'm really interested in media, democracy, and transportation as other sorts of shared, public space. its certainly not a photo blog in the traditional sense... Plus, who doesn't want an MPR decoder? I yearn for Gary Eichten's disapproval!

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