This time, it was the transit advocates’ turn to criticize the Republicans’ proposed cuts to balance the state budget.
The GOP’s transportation budget cuts would “destroy” Minnesota’s transit systems, they told Gov. Mark Dayton Thursday during his latest roundtable discussion.
Thursday’s session was part of a series Dayton is holding to highlight the effects that an “all-cuts” Republican budget would have on Minnesotans — in this case, transit advocates say, hurting the poor, middle class, disabled and student populations.
“The proposed cuts that you see right now would destroy the system that makes us so strong,” said Jennifer Munt, president of Transit for Livable Communities and a member of the Met Council.
With the proposed cuts, Munt said, the GOP is essentially asking the Met Council, “Which limb do you want to amputate?”
The House omnibus bill would cut $138 million from transportation funding — dramatically more than its Senate counterpart — with $129 million of the reduction coming from state appropriations to the Metropolitan Council, a regional transit authority and the administrator of Metro Transit.
The two versions still must be resolved in conference committee over the coming weeks and are among 10 omnibus budget bills the Republican majority put forward to erase Minnesota’s $5 billion deficit.
“This [legislation negotiation] isn’t done by a long shot,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Michael Beard.
Beard and the rest of his legislative colleagues are on break, but conference committees are set to continue their work next week.
Michelle Sommers, who represents 2,300 Metro Transit drivers and mechanics, said cuts included in the transportation bill would equal 550 employee layoffs.
Beard admitted that the Met Council cuts included in his bill are “too steep” but said he had little choice.
His original proposal would have backfilled cuts to the Met Council with $69 million from the County Transit Improvement Board, a move that he said “CTIB got all wound around the axle about.”
The temporary solution was ultimately dropped because the money had already been allocated to Central Corridor Light Rail line construction. Instead, Beard said, “The Met Council took a $69 million hosing.”
He called the governor’s discussion series a “media stunt” populated by many of the 78 who testified in his committee before the bill was forwarded to the House floor. “It was actually discouraging,” Beard said, “to see how many people are dependent on the government to move them around.”
Advocates painted a much broader picture of the economic and cultural benefits a robust transit system has on local economies.
“I really believe that the transit system helps drive the economy,” Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh said at the discussion, and her sentiments were echoed by members of both the Minneapolis and St. Paul chambers of commerce.
Haigh stressed that in the current economic downturn, it’s important for the state to invest in the future, which to supporters means such passenger and commuter rail as the Central Corridor light rail project and the Southwest Corridor, which is in its infancy.
The House bill also would cut all Minnesota Department of Transportation funding for rail projects and would prohibit the agency from spending on any such projects.
Republicans, many of whom oppose rail transit, aim to fund roads and bridges statewide, a constitutionally mandated duty.
The House transportation bill would hit the Met Council much harder than its Senate counterpart (which cuts about $40 million from the agency), and DFLers have long complained that — as with much of the budget — Republicans are targeting larger cities when making transit cuts.
Beard admitted to the regional disparity.
The Met Council would take a real hit (meaning it will receive less next biennium than it did this budget cycle), while rural transit would actually receive $1 million more in his bill.
In the end, Beard said, the House cuts to the Twin Cities transit will come closer to the Senate’s level before they begin negotiations with Dayton.
The governor reiterated after the discussion that he won’t personally step in to the negotiation process until the budget bills have been reconciled in conference committee.
As he’s said in the past, Dayton held the forum “primarily to listen and to learn.”