Minnesota Legislature Fails Citizens Again

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Going into the 2016 Minnesota legislative session members of the House and Senate knew one of the most important items on their agenda was a transportation bill to address the state’s failing roads and bridges.

It was a priority piece of legislation they’ve known they needed to work out since they adjourned last May without getting it done. They knew the deadline for reaching compromise and passing a bill that benefited state residents as well as local governments was May 22. That compromise had to be reached between Democrats who control the Senate, Republicans who control the state House, and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Legislature leaders also knew that a comprehensive bonding bill to address the state’s failing public works infrastructure was critical. Both bills meant not only that badly needed work would get done, but they also meant jobs for Minnesotans.

But again, legislative leaders failed the state and its citizens.

Leaders in the House and Senate play a game of brinksmanship every year - both seeking to force the other to compromise as the deadline pressure grows. When that deadline pressure fails to promote the needed compromise, the blame game starts as each side ramps up for the November election citing the failures of the other party.

It should be starkly obvious to state leaders in the Legislature that the America public is tired of this ineptness of leadership and representation. The rise of Republican Donald Trump and Vermont’s Democratic Sen. Bernie in the presidential primary races is grounded in an electorate fed up with political games that lead to nothing getting done.

Governor Dayton would have liked to see the gas tax increased to provide long-term financing for the more than $6 billion in roadwork necessary over the next decade. While open to spending some of the funds from the state’s $900 million surplus for transportation, he also wanted to see a more secure source of funding for future years. There is no guarantee the state will generate a budget surplus every year. It was only a few years ago that the state was facing budget deficits.

Democrats in the Senate, for the most part, supported Dayton’s funding proposals. Both also agreed that funding for a light-rail project from Minneapolis to the southwestern suburbs was an essential part of the transportation bill.

However, Republicans had ruled out any possibility of a gas tax increase and were opposed to the light-rail project. They wanted to focus on the use of budget surplus funds to finance transportation, but did also agree to raise license tab fees. Fees are okay since you can’t be accused of raising “taxes” even though both involve the government taking money out of your pocket.

The failure to pass a bonding bill means crucial work on a wide variety of public works projects won’t get done.

“Unless the Governor calls a special session on bonding, millions of dollars’ worth of important Greater Minnesota projects will not receive the funding they need,” Robert Broeder, mayor of Le Sueur and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities said after the session failed to produce a bill.

Failure to pass the bill means that “statewide priorities including clean water infrastructure grant and loan programs, the Greater Minnesota Business Development Public Infrastructure (BDPI) Grant Program and Corridors of Commerce highway funding…” have been sidetracked, he said.

“We have been saying all session that the Governor’s initiatives relating to water infrastructure should be the foundation of a good bonding bill,” Broeder said. “Wastewater facilities across the state are in dire need of updates due to aging infrastructure and new water quality regulations. Without additional funding through the bonding bill, our cities will have to drastically raise their water rates to pay for these costly upgrades. Cities simply cannot afford to wait any longer for state funding to help meet these needs.”

Leaders in both the House and Senate are now calling for a special session to address both the transportation and bonding bills. Whether or not there is a special session is up to the governor. In a conference call last week with rural Minnesota reporters, we asked Dayton if he would call a special session if the Legislature failed to pass a transportation bill. He replied “No,” adding that he expected it to get the work done during the regular session. Dayton’s answer was likely based on not wanting to give the Legislature the option of failing to get its work done on time.

We all want our elected officials to be wise in their spending of our money, but wise doesn’t mandate stingy. Wise also means allocating the resources necessary to keep our roads and bridges safe and functioning, and our basic in good repair. Each generation has to take responsibility for not only maintaining what past generations built, but also adding new construction to meet the needs of the state’s growing population.

The Republican Party’s constant blocking of badly needed money for roads, bridges, water infrastructure, and public buildings gives them the campaign slogans on not raising taxes that they hope will get them re-elected. But their tax cutting and reducing of budgets for infrastructure simply passes the cost on to future generations while making current state residents put up with more potholes and deteriorating bridges.

As citizens, we should also be offended by the way in which the Legislature conducts its last minute negotiations on bills behind closed doors. With the Senate and House each passing bills with different wording, they need to form conference committees to work out compromise language. These meetings take place between just a few members of each body out of the public’s view. When compromise is reached, the bills are presented to the members of each body who are asked to vote quickly with little or no time to review the changes that have been made. Further, the public has no input.

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