Friday, February 29, 2008

Week of February 24, 2008

Transportation bill: The big news was that the House and Senate overrode the Governor's veto of the transportation bill. We needed 90 votes to override in the House and we got 91 votes, including six Republicans. All of us at the legislature have received a lot of calls, letters, e-mails, and personal visits on this issue this week. Legislators and others involved in transportation have been working on this for years, but obviously because gas prices have been high and because there is a lot of uncertainty in the economy the vote didn't come at a very good time. However, the $6.6 billion in new revenue will be spread out over ten years rather than just during this year, so this was one of those deals where we had to do something that looked out for the long term.

Our transportation infrastructure has been in trouble. MnDOT has said they are over $2.4 billion a year behind on road and bridge maintenance needs. The question has been how to find the necessary dollars (about $4.8 billion for each two-year budget cycle) to catch up. Without any legislative action, this problem would only get worse. That left us with three choices: cut the state budget somewhere else; borrow money; or to raise new revenue.

In 2003, when the state’s budget deficit was $4.5 billion, the state cut so much from the budget that K-12 education was cut, higher education tuition went up by double digits, social services to children, seniors, and those with disabilities were cut, and property taxes skyrocketed due to reduced aid from the state. Going down that road again was not a very attractive option.

The other option was to borrow more money for roads and bridges, which is what the legislature did in 2003 and 2005. In just the last five years, the debt on our state highway bonds has increased by 650% with no dedicated source of revenue to pay it off. (That's right, 650%.)

To use the gas tax and license tab fees that must be dedicated to roads and bridges according to the highest law in the land—the state constitution—ended up being part of the option we settled on this week.

Our plan will be funded by a phased-in 5 cent per gallon gas tax increase, the first increase in 20 years. In 2006, Minnesota's 20 cent per gallon gas tax (it's not a percentage of your purchase price) was ranked 40th in the country. We also are borrowing a large sum, but an additional 3.5 cent per gallon surcharge will pay off the bonds. Other borrowing proposals did not have a plan for paying off the bonds. A ¼ cent metro wide sales tax increase will go towards transit options like park and rides (including one in Lino Lakes), buses, and rail. I voted for an amendment to the bill that would have had a referendum on the sales tax. The plan also sends road funding to our cities to help keep a lid on property taxes. Overall, the plan infuses $6 billion over ten years to our infrastructure, including fixing all 13 of the “fracture-critical” state bridges.

The final bill was a compromise with six House Republicans and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to ensure we finally got something done after many years of gridlock. All of us understand that this was not the most popular thing to do, but the price of doing nothing is far greater.

I did some math this week and calculated the added cost of the gas tax to me personally would be $34 a year after the gas tax is fully phased in. That's 12,000 miles a year x 30 mpg = 400 gallons/yr x $0.085 in extra gas tax = $34.00 a year. I pay no additional license tab fee unless I buy a new car.

Earlier this month I sent out an electronic survey to the 700+ constituents who have contacted me by e-mail in the last year. While the survey was not statistically valid because the respondents were not selected at random, the people who are on that list are from all points of the political spectrum. A total of 245 people responded to the survey.

When asked about the gas tax, 57% supported an increase, 17% said "maybe", and 26% did not support an increase. In another question about how to raise the revenue for roads, bridges and transit, 46% said raise the gas tax by TEN cents so that we don't have to issue any bonds for borrowing (this was a big surprise), 17% said raise it by five cents plus 2.5 cents to pay off bonds, 9% said borrow the money and pay off the bonds from somewhere else in the budget, and 28% said don't borrow, don't tax, and just get the money from elsewhere in the budget.

There is also a lot of misunderstanding about where the money goes. I thought Rick Kupchella on KARE-11 did a nice job this week in a news story about this. You can watch it on-line. My three-minute You Tube video also summarizes the issue.

The Star Tribune just did a fact-check on claims about the gas tax.

In other news, the Senate did not confirm Carol Molnau as MnDOT Commissioner. I think that this was justified so that MnDOT can have a fresh start.

35W Bridge Survivors Bill: We also passed the 35W bridge survivors bill this week in the House. Four people from our district were on the bridge on August 1st, including one who was killed. Her husband was in the gallery when we took the vote. This bill will hopefully allow for some reconciliation between the state and the people who were on the bridge. There is a fiscal impact to this bill, but it does two things: avoid the potential for more expensive lawsuits later and asks the state to take some responsibility if not necessarily the legal liability. One of the most frustrating things for the survivors and victims' families has been that the executive branch has been passing the buck on this issue.

Budget Forecast: We did receive the February budget forecast on Thursday in which our state budget will have a deficit of $935 million. The Governor will send to us a budget supplement where he will recommend how to balance the budget, and then the legislature will work from that to set "budget targets" for different committees. There will be cuts but I suspect we will set some priorities where we don't want to go back on some of the gains that we made in 2007.

North Oaks meeting: The MN Pollution Control Agency held a public meeting on the Highway 96 landfill cleanup situation on Tuesday night, and Senator Rummel, Rep. McFarlane and I attended. This was when the public was to comment on the proposed amendment to the "Minnesota Decision Document" for the project. The public comments were mostly negative because the new MDD for how to deal with wells contaminated with vinyl chloride still is not that clear about what action the agency will take if new wells are contaminated. Residents were looking for more clarity and decisiveness.

Schedule: On Monday I attended a caucus meeting and a lengthy floor session on the override of the transportation bill as well as a meeting of the Energy Policy & Finance Committee on some relatively minor bills. On Tuesday, I attended the Environmental Finance Committee where we had an informational hearing on Rep. Bunn's bill to bond state dollars for cleaning up the Washington County landfill; attended a committee caucus meeting; attended the Environment & Natural Resources Committee to deliberate Rep. Knuth's cap & trade bill; and attended a public meeting in North Oaks hosted by the MPCA about the Highway 96 landfill situation. On Wednesday, I attended a caucus meeting and the Energy Policy & Finance Committee where we heard several bills, including quite a bit of time in hearing a bill that would promote green building standards in state buildings. On Thursday, we had a floor session where we voted on the 35W bridge survivors bill (I voted in support) and it passed by something like 120 to 10. In the afternoon, Rep. Sailer, Rep. Ozment, and I spoke at the MPCA Air, Water & Waste Conference in Bloomington about pending legislation. We made it back for the Environment & Natural Resources Committee, where my bill HF3238 on drinking water passed as amended and went to the next committee (local government & metropolitan affairs). On Friday I cleaned up my desk and met with staff about upcoming bill hearings and committee meetings.

Visitors: Reporter for the St. Paul Legal Ledger; staff and volunteer from the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River as part of MN Historical Society Day on the Hill; lobbyists for Missouri Valley Energy about the cap & trade bill; lobbyist for Great River Energy about the cap & trade bill; another member and staff and lobbyist for Anoka County regarding the Rice Creek Trail in Lino Lakes; three constituent nurses for MN Nurses Day on the Hill; lobbyist for MN Builders Association about HF3540 and HF3091; staff from Hospice MN about my HF3185 bill; constituent banker for Bankers' Day a the Capitol; lobbyist for Xcel Energy on cap & trade bill; constituent dentist for MN Dentists' Day with legislative platform (against greater reliance on hygienists); three representatives of the Mounds View Education Association with Education MN platform; three landscaper constituents with platform of MN Nursery & Landscape Association; Hugo resident with platform of MN Bikers (motorcyclists); two Bethel College students for MN Private Colleges Day on the Hill; DNR staff about HF3238; lobbyist for MN League of Cities for HF3238; Circle Pines constituent about carpet recycling; staff from Alexandra House in Anoka County (the only women's shelter in Anoka County); MN Department of Health staff about HF3238; lobbyist for MN Multi Housing Association (apartment building owners) about HF3238; U of M dentistry students against promoting independent hygienist program; lobbyist for Western Lake Superior Sanitary District

Constituent contacts: Will update soon! Lots of contacts this week.