Editorial: Keep transportation top priority for state surplus

It is commonly assumed that the off-year legislative session is simply a time for legislators to pass a bonding bill, fix some recently-passed legislation and go home. That’s far from the case in 2016.

When this session opens on March 8, legislators will face a big challenge. They must figure how to utilize a $1.2 billion general fund surplus that is projected for the next biennium.

According to Minnesota Management and Budget, the general fund forecast is now $1.871 billion. Under existing law, $544 million must go into the budget reserve and $71 million must go to environmental funds, leaving a balance of $1.256 billion.

During this session the debate will be about that surplus: how to spend it, reserve it or whether to refund dollars to taxpayers.

The ECM Publishers Editorial Board continues to favor spending a major portion of the surplus to improve roads and fix bridges throughout the state. We recognize passing a gas tax to fund a long-range plan won’t happen this election year, even though it is estimated $11 billion will be needed the next 10 years to upgrade bridges, roads and highways. If a Republican-backed proposal to direct existing taxes on auto parts and rental car fees to road and bridge needs is approved, the negative impact on the state’s general fund must receive serious consideration.

We favor utilizing some of the surplus to further build the reserve fund, and we believe some funds should go to reducing taxes by increasing the eligibility for the Child and Dependent Care Credit, a reduction in the statewide business property tax and utilizing a new Market Tax Credit as proposed by Republicans. The latter is one of the nation’s most successful programs using the federal New Markets Tax Credit program. New Markets Tax Credits revitalize low-income, distressed communities by creating public-private partnerships that provide much-needed capital to strengthen businesses and community facilities.

We also favor Gov. Mark Dayton’s plan to expand the state college grant program and address tuition issues at the two-year colleges and technical schools.

We continue to favor spending for preschool education, but funding questions remain for a universal, public school-based program. Districts continue to adjust facilities and curriculum to accommodate all-day, every-day kindergarten. If a universal pre-kindergarten program is adopted, schools must have the classrooms and facilities to handle the program. A study of the impact on private daycare facilities is warranted.

Funding the Southwest Light Rail Transit line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie is essential for easing traffic congestion, moving employees to jobs and stimulating investment along the line. With federal dollars again in the budget for 2016, the Legislature should continue to study a seven-county regional half-cent sales tax to fund the state’s $135 million share to keep this important line funded and on track. The proposed sales tax is the Metropolitan Council’s preferred funding option.

Last year, during the Editorial Board’s study of violence in society, we realized there is a need to have stronger penalties for hate crimes. We favor Sen. Ron Latz’s proposed legislation to stiffen hate-crime charges from a gross misdemeanor to a felony.

We continue to call for stronger penalties for drivers whose distractions cause serious accidents and deaths. We believe the penalties for driving while texting should be the same as for drunken driving. The penalty for a first offense of texting while driving is $50 and $225 for a second offense.

Compare this to a first drunken driving offense of up to 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, and a suspended driver’s license of 90 days.Furthermore, we favor a mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists, considering the number of fatalities involving motorcycles.

Local government aid (LGA) to Minnesota cities also remains a viable topic, particularly for cities in greater Minnesota that have seen this funding source gutted. A one-time injection of budget surplus would be welcome but the Legislature must decide if additional funding for LGA is a wise investment and how it can be supported with a permanent funding stream.

The inability of the governor and lawmakers to agree on a special session this winter will create other topics for this session. The Real ID driver’s license requirement of the federal government, finding funds to study racial disparity and extending unemployment insurance compensation for laid-off miners on the Iron Range are all subjects that must be addressed.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board