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Lawmakers want to guarantee highway money

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators have done an about-face and now want to make sure highway construction projects receive a guaranteed portion of a new funding source.

A proposed constitutional amendment to dedicate all of the state motor vehicle sales tax to transportation, passed last year by lawmakers, could have allowed all or most of the money to be used for transit. The House on Tuesday followed an earlier Senate vote and decided 60 percent of the funds should be spent on highway construction, with 40 percent going to transit.

The motor vehicle tax generated $550 million in 2005.

The House voted 69-63 to make the change in the proposal, which will be presented to voters in the Nov. 7 election.

"If we don't lock in for highways, you could have hundreds of millions of dollars that could go to highways around this state may not be here in the future," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said.

But Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, said more money for transit actually would help rural highways.

"Any dollar you spend for transit ... it relieves some moneys that can be spent in the rural areas," Lieder said.

Twin Cities transit needs are so great that they will drain money from rural road needs, he added. With the vote that locks in 60 percent of the funds for highways, Lieder predicted that "it is going to be a long dry spell for highway funding." The debate was on a transportation funding bill, approved 100-31, that also would spend $2.5 billion on highways over the next decade -- a controversial plan by Gov. Tim Pawlenty that is opposed by Senate Democrats. However, that $2.5 billion would be available only if the motor vehicle sales tax proposal passes Nov. 7.

Much of the debate Tuesday centered on rural issues, including on whether the motor vehicle sales tax should be split on a firm percentage or whether future legislatures should be able to give transit more money.

About 54 percent of the motor vehicle tax goes to transportation uses, with the rest deposited into the state General Fund. The amendment would send all to transportation.

There are questions whether it is constitutional to change a proposed constitutional amendment once the Legislature passes it. However, there is general agreement that the issue will be taken to court regardless of what happens.

The House vote makes it more likely that the amendment will be reworded. However, with the Legislature due to adjourn in coming days, the House and Senate may not reach an agreement on how to mesh their two bills, leaving last year's wording in place.

That prospect did not please Lanning.

"In other words, this proposal says we are going to put a sliding scale in our Constitution," Lanning said. "I ask you does it make sense to put a sliding scale in our Constitution? I don't think it does."

"Hypothetically, theoretically, it could be 0 percent for highways," added Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester.

The overall transportation bill appropriates $88 million, mostly from federal funds, to state highways. In total, the bill spends $131 million next year.

Also during the House transportation debate:

• Representatives overwhelmingly rejected a Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove city, proposal to authorize a license plate to raise money to fight methamphetamine. Urdahl said it may not be the best way to raise money to battle drugs, but it is better than nothing.

• On an 89-40 vote, the House turned down a proposal that would allow police to stop drivers for not wearing seat belts. "This is a big rural issue," Rep. Ray Cox, R-Northfield. "Rural teens and rural drivers spend more time on the roads." The Senate included a similar provision in its transportation bill.

• Lawmakers rejected a proposal to prohibit young drivers with provisional licenses from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. without a parent. Supporters said it could save lives, but opponents argued it would interfere with parental rights and create problems for Greater Minnesota teens traveling home from late-night school sports events.

• Increased load limits on most rural roads to 10 tons, unless posted otherwise. Lieder complained that many of the roads are not built to accept that size loads, but the proposal easily passed on a voice vote. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said farmers and others are ignoring lower load limits, so the law should be changed.

• Minnesota vehicles will be allowed to tow golf carts under an amendment proposed by Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar. The provision passed on a voice vote.

• Children through 6 would be required to be in booster seats, up from the current 4. The provision passed 81-50.

Forum Communications reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.