BY GABE LICHT
ST. PAUL, MN When Gov. Mark Dayton signed a $988 million bonding bill into law Tuesday, he signed off on a total of $12.5 million in improvements for Highway 12, including intersection improvements at Hennepin County Road 90 and the realignment of Hennepin County Road 92.
“I’m very pleased that provision was in it and to see it passed,” Rep. Joe McDonald (R-Delano) said. “For the most part, we knew it had the votes and would pass through both bodies. I and many have worked hard to get funding for Highway 12.”
Rep. Jerry Hertaus (R-Greenfield) said he had introduced a bill providing $15 million in funding for Highway 12 into the bonding bill that failed to pass in 2016.
After the Minnesota Department of Transportation used federal funds to cover the cost of a barrier, Hertaus reduced the request to $12.5 million and reintroduced it into the bonding and transportation bills. It includes $11.3 million to be allocated to Hennepin County and $1.2 million to be allocated to MnDOT.
“It took an extra 12 months, but we got it done,” Sen. Dave Osmek (R-Mound) said in an email to members of the Highway 12 Safety Coalition. “ . . . We won as a team.”
MnDOT had previously announced plans for improvements such as a roundabout to be built at the County Road 90 intersection in 2021, but the project will likely happen sooner now.
“It should speed it up considerably because MnDOT has their pipeline of projects and part of that, I’m sure, is driven by funding,” said Hertaus, who is not convinced a roundabout is the right solution, and will express that concern to MnDOT.
Hertaus is optimistic about how soon County Road 92 could be realigned.
“Now that the funding has been approved, there’s no reason not to start right-of-way acquisition, engineering, design, bid letting probably next year and construction maybe the year following,” Hertaus said. “This would still be two years out on an ambitious schedule. This is 2017. In theory, we could have this done before 2020, which would be great.”
Overall, the bonding bill included $165 million for roads and bridges, in addition to a $300 million transportation bill.
“We’re happy we have a clean bill for transportation and a clean bill for bonding,” Sen. Bruce Anderson (R-Buffalo) said.
McDonald called the transportation bill the largest investment in road and bridge infrastructure in state history, and he noted it did not include an increase in the gas tax or license tab fees.
Dayton signed the transportation bill, but contended a gas tax would have raised $944 million for roads and bridges; $180 million for transit; and $114 million for local roads, bridges, and transit in fiscal year 2018-19.
“As I have previously stated, our transportation and transit systems lack the resources necessary to maintain our existing system, let alone fund the needed expansion to support a thriving economy,” Dayton wrote in a letter to Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt (R-Crown).
$46 billion budget
“We’re increasing spending to $46 billion,” McDonald said. “That number is concerning to me.”
He compared that budget to the $34 billion budget that was passed for 2011-12, after he was elected in 2010.
Anderson went back a little further.
“When I first came into office in 1994, we were at a $17 billion yearly budget,” Anderson said. “Now we’re up to almost $46 billion. That’s increased our government way too big for me. That’s the problem: how fast we grow the government and how much people depend on government rather than their own resources and the resources of the local communities.”
McDonald said he is concerned because some of the $46 billion budgeted is based on projected revenues.
“We need to be careful not to spend based on a projection of what we may be bringing in,” McDonald said. “ . . . We’re one disaster away from slowing down the economy.”
Delano-area Republicans are proud of a tax-relief bill that will return about $650 million to Minnesota taxpayers over the next two years.
“My philosophy is we can afford to give money back in the form of tax breaks and reform,” McDonald said, referring to the $1.65 billion state surplus. “Clearly, we’re collecting more money than we need. Our reserves are built up to near record proportions.”
He said the tax relief would go to farmers, college students, families, mom and pop stores, all businesses, and senior citizens.
Anderson contrasted the tax relief against a $2.2 billion increase in taxes in 2013.
“This is a step in the right direction of not overtaxing residents and businesses,” Anderson said. “We hope to reverse the trend of taxing more.”
According to McDonald, tax relief includes:
• A tax reduction for 284,000 senior citizens, including 72,000 who will no longer have to pay income tax on social security benefits.
• An increase in tax relief for families with childcare expenses. For example, a family of four making $50,000 per year will receive $1,200 toward childcare expenses.
• An average of $414 back in taxes to go toward student loan payments for about 65,000 Minnesotans.
• An exclusion of property tax on the first $100,000 of commercial or industrial property for all businesses.
• Tax relief for 240,000 farmers “to address their disproportionate share of school debt service.”
• Sales tax exemption for local nonprofit organizations for events lasting up to 10 days.
• A credit for 25 percent premium reduction for 90,000 Minnesotans who purchase insurance on their own, which McDonald said some constituents have already noticed.
Dayton initially announced he would allow the tax bill to become law without his signature, but later signed the bill, despite disagreeing with the estate tax cut; freezing the levy for businesses, which he said would “disproportionally benefit owners of buildings like the IDS Tower and the Mall of America and cost over $1 billion over the next 10 years;” and the elimination of the inflator on cigarette taxes, which he called “among the most egregious provisions in the tax bill.”
Dayton also said, “It is unfortunate that this bill does not include the full expansion of the working family credit I proposed in January.”
Education and more
In other business, the legislature agreed upon a 2 percent across-the-board increase for education.
McDonald said the original formula provided a 1.5 percent increase for larger school districts and up to a 3 percent increase for smaller school districts.
“We had to negotiate and ended up with 2 percent across the board,” McDonald said. “Had it been scaled, that would have been great for our school district, at about 2.5 percent.”
There was a surprise, as well.
“I’m surprised the governor just recently decided he wanted to defund the legislature,” McDonald said. “ . . . That action by the governor is very surprising and, quite frankly, might be unconstitutional.”
Dayton has said he did so to “bring the leaders back to the table to negotiate provisions in the tax, education, and public safety bills that I cannot accept.”
A lawsuit challenging the governor’s ability to defund the legislature is expected.
McDonald summed up the past three months.
“It was a tough session,” he said. “It’s almost just as tough to balance the budget with a surplus as it is with a deficit, maybe more challenging.”