Voters to decide on funding issue

Courtney Blanchard

This year’s Election Day won’t just be about candidates fighting; voters will decide whether to amend the Minnesota Constitution.

The proposed change, dubbed the transportation amendment, would require taxes from new and used vehicle sales to fund transportation and transit.

If the measure passes, Minnesota roads and transit always will have a dedicated source of money, but some lawmakers and policy experts are concerned that it’s being done the wrong way.

The amendment needs 60 percent of the vote to be adopted. However, blank ballots count the same as “no” votes. The amendment faces another obstacle: confusion over the way the measure is posed on the ballot.

State Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the issue is important to Minnesotans, especially students.

“Anybody that drives knows how bad congestion is,” he said. “And it’s only getting worse.”

Erhardt said lawmakers are unable to adequately fund transportation. The amendment would force the Legislature to use money from the vehicle tax only toward transportation, he said.

“This is so the legislators will keep their hands off (vehicle tax money),” he said.

John S. Adams, senior research associate at the University’s Center for Transportation Studies, said an amendment might result in less transportation money.

“It’s not going to supply the amount of resources that are needed,” he said. “It may seem to the Legislature once it passes that they don’t need to fund transportation.”

Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, chairwoman of the House transportation finance committee, said that in theory the amendment could result in an uneven division between statewide transportation and metropolitan transit.

She said the amendment is not the solution to funding transportation.

“I think the Legislature should just do it on their own,” Holberg said. “But historically that hasn’t worked so well.”

Rick Krueger, director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, said the amendment is needed because of the Legislature’s ineffectiveness.

Krueger is also involved in Vote Yes Minnesota, an advertising campaign attempting to get the amendment passed.

Vote Yes volunteers and staff members have been at the State Fair, art fairs and Vikings and Twins games. Funded by private donations, the campaign is endorsed by more than 1,000 organizations and businesses, according to its Web site.

Krueger said the large campaign is necessary to educate the public.

“The transportation issue just doesn’t capture the hearts and souls of people,” he said.

Irna Landrum, a graduate student in advocacy and public policy at the University’s Duluth campus, passed out fliers outside the Metrodome before the Twins game Tuesday. She said passing the amendment makes sense for Minnesota.

Landrum said it’s an easy choice to promote the amendment, because candidates always make promises but don’t deliver.

“I’m a little jaded about candidates,” she said. “But this is something people can change.”

Frank Douma, assistant director of state and local policy at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said the amendment has positive and negative sides.

Transportation needs new forms of revenue because Gov. Tim Pawlenty hasn’t created new taxes, Douma said. If the amendment doesn’t pass, Douma said, policymakers warn it might be difficult to fund transit projects like the Central Corridor light rail that would run through the University.

The flip side, Douma said, is vehicle tax money could be dedicated to transportation, ignoring transit projects, or vice versa.

“Who should be in charge of making that choice? Should the citizens write it into the constitution Ö or should it be part of the legislative process?” he said.

Marketing junior Eric Lippert said it takes him 25 minutes to get from Brooklyn Park to the University.

“(The roads) are pretty full of potholes, but I’ve never gotten a flat tire,” he said.

Lippert said he will vote for the amendment, as long transportation funding doesn’t take away from other areas, such as education.