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No bill is ‘dead’ until lawmakers go home

Transit advocates say increased transit funding is critical
Metropolitan Council
Transit advocates say increased transit funding is critical to moving forward with the region's third light-rail transit (LRT) line in the Southwest corridor between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

One quickly learns that in the Minnesota Legislature, no proposal is ever “dead” until the session ends and lawmakers go home. Bills that are voted down in committee have a way of reappearing as floor amendments or in conference committee.

That truism was proven once again Friday when a proposal to raise taxes for highways and transit was revived on the Senate floor and approved 35-27. Just two days earlier, several versions of the proposal had failed in the Senate Tax Committee.

The transportation funding proposal still faces an uphill battle. Gov. Mark Dayton says he opposes raising the gasoline tax, and the House has approved a “lights on” transportation funding bill that includes no additional resources for highways and transit.

The issue was not addressed in the budget deal announced Sunday, but the governor and legislative leaders are expected to continue talking about it.

Even before Friday’s Senate vote, transit advocates had summoned allies to a rally at 11 a.m. Wednesday outside of the governor’s office to press their case for increased transit funding.  They say it is critical to expanding the metro bus system and moving forward with the region’s third light-rail transit (LRT) line in the Southwest corridor between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

“Other states across the country are not waiting to make investments in transportation. Minnesotans cannot afford to wait either:  jobs and key projects are at stake, and our region cannot fall further behind,” said Transit for Livable Communities (TLC) in an email to supporters.

Sales tax increase

The legislation approved Friday would raise the existing quarter-cent metro sales tax for transit by a half-cent and couple it with a nickel-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax, the revenues from which are constitutionally dedicated to highways. Both tax increases would be phased in over four years.

Dayton has supported the sales tax increase for transit, but not the gasoline tax hike for highways. Transit advocates argue that you need the gas tax hike to get enough rural votes to pass increased transit funding.

Many House DFLers are sympathetic, but they are leery about voting for too many tax increases a year before they and the governor face re-election. Senators have four-year terms and are not up for re-election until 2016.

Gun control

If anything is truly “dead” for this session, it probably is legislation to combat gun violence. Neither the DFL governor nor the DFL-controlled Legislature has demonstrated any appetite to take on the gun lobby and its supporters, who showed up in large numbers at legislative hearings on gun safety measures.

One by one, proposals for bans on assault-style rifles, limits on high-capacity magazines and expanded background checks were dropped from consideration.

Gun safety advocates held their own rally at the Capitol after House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, announced that his caucus was deeply divided on the issue and that he would not bring it to the floor this year.

"We'd been told that we'd have to compromise, so we compromised," said Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota. "We gave up the assault weapons ban, which could have prevented Sandy Hook. We gave up the high-capacity magazines ban that could have prevented Aurora. But we stuck with universal background checks, because they are the cornerstone of making our communities safe.”

Revival of the gun safety legislation this session would require nothing short of a miracle. But miracles do happen. I witnessed one in 1973, my second full session covering the Legislature.

Committees in both houses had bottled up legislation to end the brand monopolies enjoyed by Minnesota’s liquor wholesalers and require them to compete on the basis of price. One of these committees buried so many consumer bills that it became known as the “Forest Lawn” of the Senate.

In the waning days of the session, an unlikely duo – Republican Rep. Ernie Lindstrom of Richfield and DFL Sen. Nicholas Coleman of St. Paul – teamed up to rescue the liquor reform legislation. First Lindstrom and then Coleman invoked rarely used rules to yank the bill out of committee, bring it to the floor and pass it.

It was a historic defeat for the wholesale liquor lobby, which was as powerful then as the gun lobby is today.

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