Intended or not, when Minnesota House and Senate members overrode the governor’s veto of the transportation funding bill, they put 19 metropolitan-area county commissioners in the political cross hairs.
That’s because those commissioners are up for re-election this fall and they are members of the seven county boards which will make decisions on whether to impose a quarter-cent sales tax in their respective counties to help fund transit projects.
“I think we’ll all be judged and questioned on that vote,” said Anoka County Commissioner Dan Erhart, one of three Anoka commissioners who faces re-election this year. “This is a vote that raises the sales tax in Anoka County or what ever county that participates in that sales tax.”
The extra tax dollop would be on top of the existing sales tax. It is part of the $6.6 billion transportation funding bill that also includes a gas tax hike and increases most annual vehicle registration fees. It also authorizes an extra sales tax in non-metro counties, but only if county residents approve the higher rate in referendums.
Already, the Taxpayers League of Minnesota has weighed in. The anti-tax watch dog group has emailed its 8,000 or so supporters telling them about the possible sales tax hike and advising them on how to reach commissioners of the seven core county boards — Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin Ramsey, Scott and Washington.
The League’s long reach already was felt earlier this month. It sent emails to supporters regarding the six Republican House members who joined every DFLer to override Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto. Four of the six Republicans House members failed to receive endorsements at their district endorsing conventions.
“It was a general letter, talking about conservative principles. We thought these people had truly defected on their principles,” said Phil Krinkie, league president and a former Republican House member. “Essentially this wasn’t a vote of conscience [by the six Republicans], it was a vote of capitulation.”
Now the League is emailing supporters about the pending votes by metro county boards on whether to implement the additional sales tax. “One of the most pernicious features of the recently passed Transportation bill is a county’s option to increase the sales tax by a one-fourth cent,” the email asserts. Outstaters can vote if they want to impose the tax, but not so for metro residents, it says.
Anoka Commissioner Erhart doesn’t yet have an opponent in next fall’s election, but expects one. He also expects to vote to impose the sales tax, and he expects that vote will be used against him in the next campaign.
“If we don’t vote for this quarter-cent sales tax, it will hurt Anoka County,” said Erhart. The sales tax could bring in as much as $8 million a year for transit projects such as the North Star commuter rail line and the proposed passenger line to Duluth. Without the sales tax, some of those operational costs would come from the property tax, he said.
Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett is also up for re-election and faces a vote on imposing the sales tax. In an interview this week with MinnPost, he said he hasn’t decided on how to vote, but knows that without the sales tax, operating funds for the planned Central Corridor light rail project will fall on the property tax base. That’s not good for his district (Shoreview, Arden Hills, Vadnais Heights, North Oaks and Gem Lake), which pays the largest chunk of property taxes in Ramsey County, according to Bennett.
Bennett said commissioners who vote for it may take a political hit. Bennett stopped short of saying the sales tax would offset property taxes on a dollar-for-dollar basis. But without the tax, he said, new transit operations would affect property taxes. “Everybody pays it [the sales tax], including those from Wisconsin who shop here. If we can take it off the property tax, it’s a good trade.”
Counties signed off in past
Not every metro county commissioner must answer this fall for their votes on the sales tax. Commissioners serve four year, staggered terms. Three of seven are up in Anoka, two of five in Carver, four of seven in Dakota, three of seven in Hennepin and Ramsey, and two of five in Scott and Washington.
Keith Carlson, executive director the Metropolitan Inter-County Association, said there is precedent for the Legislature requiring counties to sign off on any additional sales tax. In the early 1990s, the Legislature authorized an additional half-cent sales tax to compensate for loss of state aid, but to get a share of the enhanced pie each county board had to affirmatively vote for it. All 87 eventually did.
Carlson expects Hennepin, Anoka and Ramsey boards will vote for the tax in the near future, though the boards can drag it out for several months. His educated guess is that the Dakota and Washington boards will follow suit. Scott and Carver counties could be the hold outs, at least until their populations grow and there is greater demand for transit.
State Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, was the most vocal of the six House Republicans who voted for the override. He also was denied party endorsement last Saturday at his district’s party convention. He hopes his vote wasn’t in vain.
“I would think that those county commissioners have been wanting money, so they better go ahead and vote it up,” he said in an interview.
Is there a political risk?
Erhardt was noncommittal, but noted that Hennepin County commissioners already have increased the sales tax to help fund the Twins ballpark. Some counties, like Scott and Carver, probably are not ready for transit. “They will be in a few years. Anybody can come in later, within the seven county metro,” he said.
The sales tax would bring in about $100 million a year if all seven counties participate. None of the tax can be used on existing regular bus service.
Krinkie of the Taxpayers League said if county commissioners are going to impose the tax, they should pledge there will be a commensurate, dollar-for-dollar decrease in property taxes. But even if they don’t, the League will remind voters of the tax hike.
“We’ve seen some immediate results,” he said, referring to the House Republicans who lost endorsement bids.
Robert Whereatt writes about public affairs and state government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.