Legality of the Transportation Amendment challenged

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Today 13 people, including four state legislators, filed a legal challenge to the Transportation Amendment that is slated to appear on Minnesota ballots this November.  The four legislators are Rep. Dan Dorman (R-Albert Lea), Rep. Morrie Lanning (R-Moorhead), Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia), and Sen. Keith Langseth (DFL-Glyndon).  Their argument?  If I might distill it for you, the words “at least” confuse people.

The amendment is designed to designate more money for transportation in Minnesota.  It does this by dedicating all of the money collected from the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax.  Currently, a big chunk of that money goes into the General Fund, where it can be spent on anything the hearts of legislators desire.

The amendment, if passed, would mandate “at least 40 percent for public transit assistance and not more than 60 percent for highway purposes.”  The plaintiffs argue that you and I, the voters, will not understand that “at least 40 percent” means that it might be more than 40 percent and that “not more than 60 percent” means it could be less than 60 percent. 

I know America’s math scores on standardized tests are low, but don’t Minnesotan’s know that “at least” means it could be greater than?  I have faith that they do.

To provide support for their argument, the plaintiffs claim that 1) the press is confused, 2) pollsters are confused, 3) the Attorney General’s office is confused, 4) the Secretary of State’s office is confused, and 5) Legislators were confused.  In each case, they claim that when ever it is discussed, it is not clear enough that “at least 40 percent” could mean an amount greater than 40 percent.

On the fifth point, I would like to point out that both Rep. Rukavina and Sen. Langseth voted for the bill that contained this amendment (HF 2461).  As far as I can tell, there were at least eight amendments offered on the bill during the House floor debate (May 11, 2005) and not one of those tried to clarify any confusing language related to the amendment. 

There were a few attempts this past Spring to change the amendment to an exact 40/60 transit/highway split, but that was being done to fundamentally alter the legislative intent, not to clarify the language (this is in my opinion, having only been a spectator in the process – if I am wrong on this, please say so in a comment below). 

Call me cynical, but this seems like a rather weak attempt by the amendment’s opponents to prevent the people of Minnesota from designating all of this funding for transportation uses.

Your thoughts?

19 Responses to “Legality of the Transportation Amendment challenged”

  1. Dave Dempsey

    This legal challenge is worse than weak, it is desperate and unfounded. The amendment is clear and it provides some (but not a lot) of latitude to future legislatures to apportion the dedicated revenue between transit and highways — which is a good thing and not confusing.

  2. dan dorman

    1) The change to a hard 60 40 passed both house and senate last year but did not come back from conference

    2) this passed as part of a more comprehensive bill that would have included a gas tax increase.

    3) If the language is so great, why did the proponets also try to change it last year?

    4) why choose the language up to for transit and not more than for roads? How about saying at least 40% will go to transit and the balance will be spilt between roads and transit?

    5) you did not see any attempt to change the amendment in 2005 because if was a huge amendment and it was sold to the crowd as 60 roads, 40 transit.

    6) spoke today with a lady today who called after reading the news coverage, and she had been out pumping up the yes vote, at a recent transit ralley she was told roads would get at least 60%, when she asked about the language she was told not to worry about getting the language out, it is too confusing.

    7) where are you going to get the money?

    8) if we want to be like cities like Denver, why not have part of the loss be made up from local taxpayers?

    How long to you want me to go?

  3. dan dorman

    Dave I can only assume that you have not seen the language. Here it is, perhaps you can tell me where it is made clear “The amendment is clear and it provides some (but not a lot) of latitude to future legislatures to apportion the dedicated revenue between transit and highways”

    Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate revenue from a tax on the sale of new and used motor vehicles over a five-year period, so that after June 20, 2011, all of the revenue is dedicated at least 40 percent for public transit assistance and not more than 60 percent for highway purposes?

    Yes No

  4. Jon

    Representative Dorman,

    You raise some interesting points, many of which are discussed at the website of the transportation amendment supporters.

    But let’s be honest – this lawsuit wasn’t filed because of its merits; it was filed to generate negative media and cloud the issue.  And, judging by today’s news from around the state it was somewhat effective in that regard. The wording may not be pretty, but it certainly isn’t designed to deliberately mislead people, which is what the lawsuit charges.  If that were the case, this suit could have been filed almost five months ago instead of one month before the election.

    What has been left out of all of the media attention is the role of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.  They seem to be travelling around the state and using their network of mayors – some of whom are signed on to this lawsuit – to frighten local governments into thinking that the Twin Cities is going to take away all of the state’s highway money to build mass transit.  The problem with that reasoning though, is the fact that the legislature still allocates all of the money.  Yes, there is a funding floor for transit, but who in their right mind would believe that all of the money is going to end up going to the Cities? 

    One might also point out that the transit money can, and will, be spent around the state.  Thus, folks like the Pipestone County transit system, which received attention this weekend in the Marshall Independent for the 40,000 trips they drive each year, will also benefit. 

  5. dan dorman

    would not have had to file to the suit if the minnesota chamber was using some of the $5 million it has raised to ram this through to tell people what it all about. Got a call on Friday from a person in my distict who works in transit and her husband trucks. She had been to a vote yes rally and still did not know roads was not for sure going to get 60% let alone may get zero. Why not at least be honest with people. See mpr story today if you think the language is so darn clear.

    I am not anti transit, it just needs a local funding source just like Denver and all the other cities that the chamber folks tell us we want to be like.

    Give me a break on the rural guys get some tranist. Over 95% stays in the metro.

    Who would think the money might end up in the cities? See the cuts of 2003 and you will find your answer.

  6. dan dorman

    FYI, the Coalition was mentioned in some of the media but they, like schools and cities, can’t spend money on ballot questions. Their board has a position against it not unlike many counties have passed one in favor of it. Oh, by they way help me understand why the yes team still claims to have over 1000 groups supporting it when many groups that passed a resolution did so sayin that they supported if only if the language changed.

  7. Jon

    I know the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) isn’t supposed to spend money against a ballot questions. I will just take it as a coincidence that some of the mayors and other elected officials who are most vocal in their opposition to the measure also happen to be on the board of CGMC.

    And if I might borrow a quote from an editorial in today’s Hutchinson Leader:

    “Transit is not just a Twin Cities matter. It’s a statewide concern. And as the state’s population ages, more people will require rides from services such as Trailblazer Transit. During a recent visit to the Leader, Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum, who hails from rural Minnesota, assured us that the Twin Cities and transit would not gobble up an unfair share of the tax revenue. The Legislature just won’t allow that to happen, he said.”

  8. dan dorman

    I would not take it as a coincidence, they just can’t spend money. I have some the vote yes on some county web sites which I think would not be proper.

    Have I ever said transit is metro only? But the facts are over 95% of the money the state spends is in the metro area. Nice of the speaker to tells us what the legislature won’t let happen, but tell me what area of the state got hammered most in 2003? Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice………..

  9. dan dorman

    Jon, you might be able to answer some questions that would make me feel better.

    1) Your group fought against a hard 60/40 split, how much do you think tranisit is going to need?

    2) Why not have a hard number for roads like transit?

    3) As a supporter of the capital dollars for the Nothstar and Central Corridor, I still want to know where the money for the operation loss for the lines is going to come from? See question one.

  10. Jon

    Just to be clear, Minnesota Environmental Partnership, who I work for, didn’t lobby one way or the other on anything related to the transporation amendment. I don’t believe we have any position on the issue, though a number of our member groups, including some who write on this blog, are supportive. Therefore, I also can’t really say why folks had the positions they did.

    As a legislator, wouldn’t you see some benefit to having a flexible allocation for both transit and highways? I realize the benefit is diminished some by the 40% minimum for transit and I realize that we could probably use as many transit dollars as possible in Minnesota, but it would seem to me that the amount needed in either category might vary from year to year – particularly as priorities change around the legislature. Thus, I would think the legislature would welcome the flexibility during the budgeting process (though I have to admit as a spectator, the legislature often goes against what I might consider logical – not saying it is wrong, just that I miss the reasoning behind some decisions).

  11. dan dorman

    Yes, they should be flexable, if we back up, this is a failure of the legislature under both DFL and R control to raise the gast tax. Then in 2001 we took over the property tax levy for transit in the metro area, which is property tax relief and not new money for transist. This was a huge mistake so now there is no local source to help fund the loss like other metro areas have.

    The suit would not have been necessary had the advocates done their job infoming the public not just selling the plan.

    No matter how you feel about transit and funding, I would hope you would think it is good idea to provide people with the information necessary to make an informed decision and not just do a few focus groups and develop a marking plan on how to sell it.

  12. dan dorman

    Have you ever taken the time to go listen to the floor debate on the amendment that started all this? then click on May 11th part 2 of 2. Rep. Erhardt talks about a 60 40 split, he does not even seem to understand his amendment in this area.

    He did talk about all the cities that have a local option sales tax to pay for transit but then votes against just that. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

    I forgot just how bad the spin was. Erhardt does talk about the transit split, and if I understood him, $249 million greater mn and $1.5 billion for the metro area over 10 years.

    The numbers he tossed around that night were presented as firm, but not only was there no clear discussion that the 60 40 split was not firm, but part of this was bonding (vetoed) and these numbers were sold as set in stone, but they were not.

    Erhardt seemed to be saying that MVST money would go into the general fund.

    wow the transit for livable communities people denounce a group of people just asking the supreme court to look at the language and see if it is clear. I guess the ends justify the means.

  13. Scoop

    Legal language and legislative bills are OFTEN not understood by the general public. This is nothing new. The wording of the amendment is appropriate and I believe the courts will come back and say that.

    The Coalition of Greater MN Cities is a thorn in many peoples’ sides (e.g. Clean Water Legacy supporters, Transportation amendment supporters). I think it’s interesting that they are not allowed to spend any money on ballot measures, but the cities opposed are using virtually the same messaging that CGMC was using during and after leg. session.

    Groups ARE working to secure additional funding for transit, including operating costs.

    If legislators don’t understand the bills they are voting on… I’m worried.

  14. dan dorman

    you should be worried. Go on line and listen to the debate from the night of the amendment. the author sold it as a hard 60/40 split the same as the gov and the Holberg bill that was being amended. So if it was his intent to do it the same way as the gov and rep holberg, why was the language changed and why then be honest about it? It is not just the CGMC that can’t spend money, counties can’t either, but they like a city can pass a resoution in support or against. See the better roads web site and you will see counties listed as supporting. That does not violate the law. It is interesting that counties that passed a resolution that stated they supported it only if the language changed are still listed, but oh well it’s just about selling something to the people right? who cares if the language was designed to mislead, since it gets ya where ya want to go it must be good? You are correct on legal language and bills being not often understood, but we are talking about a ballot question here. Would you feel the same way if the language said at least 60% for roads and up to 40% for transit? You are right about some people thinking the CGMC is a thorn, I remember a Republican Senator trying to forbid members of his caucus talking to me because I had “their” information on the property tax effects of the 2003 tax bill. House reseach had checked the numbers, but since they did not support the Governor postion they had to be bad.

  15. dan dorman

    So if this passes, can you tell me where we are going to get the money that we need for roads? Even if 100% of this went to roads it would still not be enough. Good luck trying to pass a gas tax increase or a local transit tax for years to come if this passes.

  16. June Varner

    I oppose this amendment. There is a law that requires the MVST to be used for transportation and the legislature ignores it. If there is a constitutional amendment what will make the legislature abide by that?

    The amendment says not more that 60% is to be used for highways and the rest is for transit. The way the amendment is worded says that ALL of the MVST could, could be used for transit and NONE for highways. While we would like to think that would not happen, there is nothing in the wording to prohibit it.

    AND, what is transit? Is it the Northstar corridor, is it the metro airport, is it parking lots for the new Twins Stadium, or maybe 4-wheeler trails. I believe the wording is clearly unclear enough that it is unclear.

  17. dan dorman

    Had the opportunity to go watch the court in action today. It was very intereting. Not sure how the case will turn out, but the more I look into the less I like it. Can’t find anyone who will admit to writting the language. One of the more interesting things I learned today, and I had never thougth of, is this, since the amendment is clear that 100% of the MVST will go to highways and transit, had it then just said something like this…”of that amount at least 40% must be spent on transit. Adding the 60% language is not needed, unless of course you want to mislead people into thinking 60% is going to roads.


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