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Fight over road repairs looms in Minn.

By Kyle Potter
Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A wide gulf between how Republicans, Democrats and business groups want to tackle Minnesota’s multibillion-dollar backlog of road and bridge repairs all but guarantees that what has been billed as the biggest fight of the 2015 legislative session will live up to the hype.

House Republicans unveiled a proposal Thursday that would tap a projected budget surplus and shave spending at the Department of Transportation to pay for $750 million in repairs during the next four years. A package of tax and fee increases favored by Gov. Mark Dayton and a coalition of Minnesota businesses likely would raise more than that every year for the next decade.

Dayton and top lawmakers in both chambers have set fixing Minnesota’s ailing infrastructure as their top priority. Senate Democrats plan to release their own proposal next week. Sen. Scott Dibble said Thursday it would be similar to the governor’s approach.

The last large-scale transportation plan was passed in 2008, when Republicans joined Democrats in overriding a veto by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Split power at the Capitol in 2015 means any plan will be the product of compromise between vastly different proposals.

At the heart of their differences is a disagreement over how large of a bill the state may be facing. Conservative estimates put it around $2 billion, though it could be as much as $6 billion during the next decade. Move MN, a coalition of 200 Minnesota businesses calling on legislators to fix infrastructure, cites other estimates that put the backlog at $20 billion over 20 years.

Margaret Donahoe, Move MN co-chairwoman, said the coalition’s package of proposed tax increases also released Thursday is modest but necessary to pay for transportation. The package would generate about $850 million annually.

“You can’t compete in a 21st-century economy with a 20th-century transportation system,” said coalition member Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.

Move MN proposed adding a 6.5 percent sales tax to gasoline sales in addition to the state’s current 28.5 cent per gallon tax. With prices at $2 per gallon, the change would add about $2 to a 14-gallon tank of gas. The coalition also wants legislators to increase sales taxes in the Twin Cities metro area by three-quarters of a cent, raise license-tab fees and close a tax loophole for leased cars.

Dayton has pitched a similar plan to fix roads and bridges and make expansions. And though he told the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday he is open to alternatives, he has emphasized that any transportation package needs to generate reliable revenue, not short-term fixes.

Citing a desire to avoid another tax increase on Minnesota residents, Republicans who control the state House opted for a scaled-back plan.

It would transfer for road repairs $200 million of the state’s projected $1 billion surplus, require state transportation officials spend nearly all of a special fund and find budgetary savings to use for roads and highways.

Minority Leader Paul Thissen made clear House Democrats would not support the GOP’s plan.

“They’re already waving the white flag on a long-term transportation solution,” he said. “What they’re proposing isn’t even half a Band-Aid.”

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