What is expected to be one of the more contentious, high-stakes political battles of the upcoming 2008 Minnesota legislative session — how best to fund the state’s now-notorious transportation needs — was joined in earnest Monday morning as Gov. Tim Pawlenty recommended more than $400 million in borrowing for transportation projects as the centerpiece of his $1.09 billion bonding proposal.
Specifically, Pawlenty is recommending $225 million worth of capital investments to repair or replace more than 600 local bridges across the state. That’s more than a four-fold increase over the largest previous bonding total for bridges, and more than three times what has been requested during this bonding period by the governmental units in charge of the bridges. Other highlights of the governor’s bonding proposal for transportation include $30 million for local roads, $55 million as part of a federal partnership to expand I-35W and make it more transit-friendly, and $70 million to advance the Central Corridor light rail project.
The DFL chairs of the Capital Investment committees in the Senate and House, where legislators will hammer out their own bonding priorities, criticized Pawlenty’s proposal as political damage control, a splashy stopgap measure that will not provide a sustainable funding source to address the ongoing deficiencies in the state’s transportation infrastructure.
Promising a veto
“He is trying to cover for two things; a bridge that went down, and the fact that he vetoed a comprehensive transportation bill that passed by more than two-thirds of the vote in both houses…What he would do with this bill is a one-year [fix] that would have to be paid for over 20 years time,” says state Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon.
“All it does is one tiny little thing that’s always in the bonding bill and that is local roads and bridges,” says Langseth’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. “The state’s transportation needs will still have to be solved in the transportation bill.”
But Pawlenty, a Republican, has promised to once again veto any transportation bill that involves increasing the gas or wheelage tax, an inevitable consequence of any legislation that seeks to address transportation needs that the Minnesota Department of Transportation estimates will cost $1 billion to $1.7 billion a year over the next decade, a price tag that will rise the longer the problems languish. Thus far it has been a politically advantageous position for the governor. Even in the wake of the bridge collapse last summer, polls have shown Minnesotans narrowly favoring a no-new taxes approach to transportation while providing Pawlenty with the highest approval ratings of his five-plus years in office.
Pawlenty’s borrow-for-bridges-and-roads strategy is not without political risk, however. By devoting so much of the state’s bonding capacity to transportation, the governor is necessarily short-changing other worthy projects. The governor rightly argues that his recommendations include precious little “pork” in terms of capital improvement plans under the aegis of local governments.
But in addition to providing retail political bonus points for legislators and other government officials from both parties, these local projects often have a dramatic impact on the economic development and quality of life of towns and cities across the state. For example, Langseth cited a convention center in Fergus Falls funded by bonds that held 400 events during its first year of operation. If Pawlenty gets his way, local municipalities will be deprived of these things at the same time as the governor’s parsimony with local government aid and his unwillingness to boost the gas tax (some of which is passed on to local governments) has resulted in local property tax increases, a trend that won’t likely be staunched by a one-time, albeit large, investment in local bridges and roads. All this will make it harder for Republicans in the House to uphold a gubernatorial veto of a transportation bill (the DFL now enjoys a veto-proof majority in the Senate).
Capital investments in higher education are also more likely to go begging if a greater proportion of the bonding budget goes to transportation. More than once during his Monday press conference at the Capitol, Pawlenty castigated the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) for the “unreasonable” size of their bonding request and repeatedly cautioned reporters not to contextualize his recommendations for MnSCU as a mere percentage of what they wanted.
Yet even if we use the context of Pawlenty’s previous bonding proposals, it is hard not to conclude that at least some higher education projects have also been sacrificed for the sake of transportation. In recent years, Pawlenty has recommended nearly exactly the same amount for MnSCU and the University of Minnesota. In 2005, they comprised 27.3 percent of his bonding recommendations. In 2006, the last bonding year before this one, higher education comprised 30 percent of his recommendations. This year, it is 23.7 percent. That could be problematical for a politician who is presenting himself in the national spotlight as he did statewide, as a regular blue-collar schmoe who benefited enormously from the opportunities provided by state-sponsored institutions of higher learning.
Langseth notes that Pawlenty is recommending just $40 million to cover the building maintenance on 53 MnSCU campuses, and vows to include more than the governor proposes for higher education, as the Legislature has done the two previous bonding bills. And so the test of wills continues, with the political popularity of “no new taxes” and the fraying fabric of governmental services providing a powerful incentive for both sides to dig in on their respective positions. More or less government? It is fitting that the political gridlock is over transportation.