Capitol Update for February 22, 2008

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“I wonder whether people are really grasping how wonderful Minnesota is.”

–Former Governor Elmer L. Anderson, March 19, 2001

The 91-year-old former Governor of the State of Minnesota, Elmer L. Anderson, was invited back to the Senate chamber where he served in the 1950s to present a rare speech to a packed Senate chamber. He expressed concern that Minnesota was losing its place as a national leader. The former Republican governor challenged the Legislature to make smart investments and not just make short-term tax rebates. Anderson as the governor and community leader demonstrated the need to cast a long vision to maintain Minnesota as a wonderful place to live. This is proven in his staunch support of human rights and the creation of the Voyageurs National Park.

This week members of the 2008 Legislative Session were given an opportunity to cast such vision as they took up the passage of the 2008 transportation bill. Investment in Minnesota’s transportation system has been lacking in the last few decades. Most funding packages have been cobbled together and typically have been very shortsighted. In particular, transit through improved rail and bus options have suffered the most. As a regional center, Minnesota lacks a well-designed and efficient transit system that allows our citizens to have clean, affordable options for getting around. This puts us at a competitive economic disadvantage.

From an environmental standpoint, a well-designed and effective transportation system has significant benefits. It provides cleaner air and will give us a significant reduction in global warming pollution. With 1.2 million new residents moving to the Twin Cities in the next couple of decades, failure to cast a long vision could have significant negative effects on our quality of life. Therefore, we at Minnesota Environmental Partnership have made the adoption of the “Transportation Choices 2020” investments one of our top priorities for the 2008 Legislative Session. This plan focuses on the development of a first rate transit system of both bus and rail. The basic elements of our transportation plans were included in the transportation bills put together by both the House and Senate in the first two weeks of session.

House and Senate have made quick passage of this transportation package a top priority for this legislative session. In unprecedented speed, the legislative leadership moved their transportation bills to floor votes this Thursday. In the press the bills are most noted for their increase of the gas tax for the first time in over two decades, but more importantly for the environmental community they initially included a dedicated sales tax of 1/2 of 1% (this was later amended to 1/4 of 1%) in the seven county metropolitan areas with a majority of the money dedicated to transit. This would mean $114 million annually dedicated exclusively to transit investments. It also contained the possibility of another $57 million of transit investment depending on decisions made by the seven counties in the metropolitan area of whether it should be invested in transit or roads. It also included a small dedication of about $3 million for metropolitan transit from the motor vehicle excise tax.

Because Governor Pawlenty has made a no tax increase pledge, he has indicated he was not afraid to use his “tax protection pen” to veto any transportation bill with a tax increase. The Governor did show some willingness after the collapse of the 35W bridge to support a gas tax increase, but soon changed his mind after pressure from the more conservative no-tax-increase wing of the Republican Party. Therefore, the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader have established a strategy to obtain sufficient votes to override the Governor’s veto, which requires 90 votes in the House and 45 votes in the Senate.

The challenge lies in the House, where DFL leadership needs to convince at least five Republicans to vote against the governor. Therefore, the session has been burdened with intrigue as to whether there would be five Republican votes for the DFL transportation package and, if so, who they would be. A broad coalition has emerged made up of local governments, transportation contractors, transit advocates and environmentalists in support of the DFL package. We’ve been working with the coalition to put pressure on several Republican members to get to the five needed votes to show that we have 90 votes on passage.

The final vote was set for Thursday without a very clear indication of the desperately needed five Republican votes. As a result, the Speaker of the House worked out a deal with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce with hopes of securing some Republican votes. The detail of the plan included a guarantee of our $114 million for transit through a quarter cent sales tax increase without the need for a referendum. Unfortunately, the other quarter cent of the sales tax increase that can be divided between roads and transit was lost. The idea was that the Chamber would deliver 10 Republican votes in the House for passage of the bill and that would indicate a strong position going into a future override vote. Having the Chamber’s endorsement would also give these Republicans sufficient cover if they are challenged by the more conservative wing of their party.

Given the assurance of an actual bill with $114 million dedicated to transit, we were willing to accept the compromise knowing that getting a solid vote in the House would mean success. Unfortunately, when the Chamber promised 10 votes from Republicans, they failed to actually talk to the Republicans in advance. Therefore, the House Republicans were very annoyed that the Chamber just presumed they would follow their lead. When the final vote on the package came after several hours of contentious debate, there were very few Republican votes that one could identify as actually moving to a yes as a result of the Chamber support. There were six Republicans who voted for the bill, well below the 10 votes people were expecting. Unfortunately, there were also 2 Democrats who voted against it, which has created confusion for those of us lobbying the issue. As a result, on final passage there were only 89 votes. The bill still passed and moved on to the Senate where it received an overwhelming vote, but it does not send a strong signal regarding whether we will be able to override a governor’s veto in the House which requires 90 votes.

There have been assurances that the two Democrats will still support the override, but a great deal of pressure will be put on the six courageous Republicans who would have followed in the legacy of Elmer Anderson by being willing to cast a long vision of smart investments for the public good. Investments that will provide transit options and reduce harmful pollution. Those six Republicans deserve my Elmer Anderson Courageous Republican Awards for this year:

Jim Abeler (Anoka)
Ron Erhardt (Edina)
Rod Hamilton (Mountain Lake)
Bud Heidgerken (Freeport)
Neil Peterson (Bloomington)
Kathy Tingelstad (Andover)

The Senate clearly has the votes to override the governor’s veto on the transportation bill. Therefore, all the focus shifts to the House, with all eyes on the above six Republicans to see if they will also support the override vote. Also important, the House leadership must make sure all the DFLers can support the override. That vote could come up as soon as Monday. Failure to do so would mean that Minnesota will definitely miss the giants of our past who were willing to cast a long vision and make the smart investments which will make Minnesota continue to be a wonderful place to live. Let’s hope that the voice of former Governor Elmer Anderson is still resonating through the chambers of our Capitol and that this legislature can cast a long vision for meaningful transportation choices for future generations.

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