Amendment under scrutiny
WORTHINGTON -- Supporters of a constitutional amendment to dedicate all motor vehicle sales tax (MVST) money to Minnesota transportation projects see it as the answer to years of funding frustrations.
In a recent appearance in Worthington, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he "can't imagine anyone opposing" the measure. But the amendment, in its present form, is far from a certainty.
Announced on Feb. 1, it has already received considerable criticism from DFLers. And some Republicans from rural districts are growing wary of its language.
The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities has joined common cause with rural legislators to insist that the amendment's language be changed. Currently, the constitutional question -- to be decided by voters in November -- guarantees the state's transit programs no less than 40 percent of sales tax revenue while limiting highways, roads and bridges to no more than 60 percent. That's far too vague, critics charge.
"If the proposed constitutional amendment is approved in its current form, all of the sales tax revenue could be dedicated to transit, and any highway sales tax funding could be limited to projects in the Twin Cities," said John Sundvor, an advisor to the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
In a letter sent to legislators last month, New Ulm Mayor Joel Albrecht, Granite Falls Mayor David Smiglewski and Mankato City Administrator Pat Hentges wrote that the Coalition "will not support a constitutional amendment that does not address our highway needs." Coalition members are seeking to change the amendment's language to guarantee 40 percent of MVST funds to mass transit and 60 percent to highway projects.
The 2006 legislative session begins on March 1. A local lawmaker, District 22A Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, believes changes to the amendment are important.
"These transit folks are rascals. No less than 40 and no more than 60 means to me it could be 40 percent going to transit all the way to 100 percent," he said.
The best option, Magnus believes, it to "make the 60 percent firm. A solid 60 percent."
"I think that's the best way to do it," he said. "The other way to do it is put it into statute. But statutes don't overrule the constitution. The constitution is the overriding document."
Magnus said he would favor the amendment provided its language is changed. If it isn't, he admitted, "Then that's going to be a problem. ... I don't really like it (as it is now). I'd like to see solid numbers in there so everybody knows the rules."
District 22 Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, announced last week that he opposes the amendment, in part, for the vagueness of the 40-60 language.
"About two-thirds of serious traffic accidents occur on rural roads, thanks in part to unsafe conditions like sharp curves and narrow lanes," Vickerman said. "Neglecting the condition of rural roads is not just a slap in the face to rural communities; it is a monumental failure to address the core issue of the safety of our citizens."
Pawlenty said he will ask the Legislature to agree to $2.5 billion in state borrowing over 10 years, a plan dependent on the amendment passing. Under current law, only 54 percent of SVST money is set aside for highway and road improvements, but 100 percent would be used for transportation if the amendment succeeds.
Magnus said he and Pawlenty, whom he calls a personal friend, are not seeing completely eye-to-eye on the amendment issue. But he hopes that will change soon enough.
"I think he understands they need more funds in the transportation system and that the way to make it work is to bond those dollars," Magnus said. "And I agree with that. It takes a lot of money to build these roads."
He remains leery that rural Minnesota will get everything it needs.
"He's the governor for the whole state," Magnus said. "I'm a state representative, but I've got to stand up for my area."