Bill to cut Met Council funds passes House

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With Minnesota facing a projected $5 billion deficit, transportation funding has become a familiar target for legislators.

The House passed a GOP bill late Monday night that would eliminate $120 million in general fund appropriations to the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit.

Met Council Chair Susan Haigh sent a letter to the author of the proposed bill, Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, last week, urging him to reconsider cutting their “most stable funding source.”

The bill would force the Met Council to raise fares by as much as $4 or cut the number of routes by 45 percent, resulting in more congestion, Haigh claimed.

“Can you imagine the impact of 22 million more riders in cars each year on the region’s roads and highways?” she said in the letter.

While some fare increases may be necessary, Beard, the chair of the Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, said the situation isn’t as dire as Haigh portrayed.

Revenue from the motor vehicle sales tax, the majority of which goes to the Met Council, will increase by $98 million next biennium, he said. In addition, the bill would allow the Met Council to draw money from the livable communities fund as well as the right-of-way acquisition loan fund to help cover losses.

The projected shortfall amounts to about $40 million or 10 percent of the Met Council’s transportation revenue, according to Beard, which wouldn’t result in the drastic measures Haigh is claiming.

“A 10 percent reduction does not equal a 45 percent reduction in service or a 55 percent reduction in payroll,” he said. “It’s just nonsensical.”

But opponents of the bill said it relies on inconsistent motor vehicle sales tax figures. Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, said the bill would take money from the general fund and “roll the dice with the MVST.”

A motion to re-refer the bill to tax committee failed.

To make up for the shortfall, a provision in the bill would have diverted some money from the metro area’s sales tax fund for rail services to the state for existing bus lines. But that provision was dropped last week after it met with heavy criticism from Democrats and county commissioners.

Opponents warned that it could set a precedent for the state to raid local government funds to make up for the deficit. But Beard defended the provision as economically sensible.

 “We’re in an economic recession,” Beard said. “It just seems prudent to not spend that money on other new train lines until we get the current stuff covered.”

Meanwhile, a proposal that would halt construction on the Central Corridor light-rail line survived a committee hearing last week.

The proposal would stop construction on the line connecting the St. Paul and Minneapolis downtowns unless the federal government formalizes its agreement to fund the project by April 1. The federal government is expected to pay for half of the $957 million project after the full funding grant agreement comes through in the next few weeks.

A provision in the House bill that would defund a $42.8 million appropriation for the project was removed during a House Capital Investment Committee hearing last week.

Beard said he was skeptical of the project’s ability to relieve congestion, but admitted that stopping it now would not only be a politically questionable move but would also cost taxpayers. Crews are already preparing Washington and University Avenues to accommodate the rail line.

“That horse has already left the barn,” Beard said.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, the DFL lead on the Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, said the bill would have no effect and was more of a representation of some legislators’ reluctance to fund such projects.

“Some legislators don’t want to spend money on transit,” Hornstein said. “They don’t think it’s a core function of government.”

Beard also discussed a possible restructuring of the Met Council in the next year and a half.

Citing a legislative audit released in January that found the Met Council’s complex structure lacks accountability, Beard said legislators intend to divert responsibility over the region’s transit system to a new centralized agency.

Beard said he hopes this new agency will have elected officials, in contrast to the Met Council, whose members are appointed by the governor. The Met Council will likely still retain some responsibilities in regional planning.

That process will likely begin with the formation of a bipartisan committee to discuss the transit system restructuring after the budget debates end, Beard said.