ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton opened the door on Thursday to a transportation budget without a gasoline-tax increase, a sign that Republican legislative leaders hoped would pave the way to finally approving new money for road and bridge repairs after years of failed efforts.
Dayton and lawmakers have struggled to pass a transportation package amid partisan divides over how to pay for it. Dayton and Democrats have pushed for a gas tax hike, whereas Republicans have insisted the budget surplus and existing tax revenues are sufficient.
Although Dayton still stressed he believes a 10-cent gas tax increase is the best route and cautioned that he’ll protect government programs that could lose out on money rerouted to transportation funds, he’s outnumbered by Republicans who now control both the House and Senate. The governor said he wouldn’t veto a bill that repurposes existing general fund dollars and doesn’t include a gas tax.
“An inadequate bill is better than no bill,” he said.
Republicans and Democrats alike have made paying for a backlog of unfunded construction plans throughout the state a top priority for years. If passed this year, the proposed transportation budget would provide the first big boost to road and bridge funding since 2008.
The GOP-controlled House and Senate have approved funding packages that rely on borrowing, tapping part of a healthy budget surplus and shifting $400 million-plus in existing taxes on car parts, rentals and leases from the state’s general fund to its dedicated transportation fund.
Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt called Dayton’s softening opposition a “huge step” as the Legislature works to finish up a new, two-year budget in the next month.
“Transportation is the place where I’m probably most optimistic,” Daudt said.
The debate over road and bridge repairs — and how much of the state’s existing taxes should be repurposed for them — will play a pivotal role in the broader budget negotiations. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he hopes to wrap up a deal on transportation early on to ease the rest of the work.
But there are still lingering obstacles that could make progress tricky. These include Republican opposition to paying for mass transit projects and Democrats’ concerns that the proposed GOP budget cuts to the Metropolitan Council, which runs light rail routes, could harm bus service.
Gazelka said the two sides are close to an agreement, including spending more on bus transit.