A short five weeks after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed, killing 13, Minnesota’s leaders have already dropped their push for prompt attention to hundreds of other structurally deficient spans around the state that are new disasters waiting to happen.
It’s a shame and an outrage, and most of the blame belongs to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who quickly qualified his apparent U-turn on tax policy in the wake of the bridge tragedy to the point of meaninglessness. His bottom line, expressed to legislative leaders, was that the gasoline tax, which all Minnesotans pay to fund roads and bridges, could only be raised if the income tax, which falls heaviest on the wealthy, were cut.
Opinion: Who loses without a special session?
Not coincidentally, that would reduce state investments in education and health care, which are ordinary Minnesotans’ vital thoroughfares to the upper tax brackets.
Questions of tax fairness aside, the biggest losers from the apparent collapse of negotiations toward a special session of the Minnesota Legislature are folks in Greater Minnesota.
There are hundreds more bad bridges in rural parts of the state than in the metro area. But comprehensive transportation and bonding bills that would finance long-neglected repair and replacement of them are now off the table until next year.
“What’s it going to take?” asks Glen Johnson of the International Union of Operating Engineers, whose members build roads and bridges. “How big of a tragedy will it take for our governor to wake up?”
Flood-ravaged rural southeastern Minnesota will have to wait for much-needed state relief, as well. Pawlenty’s early release of state aid to the area will help local governments keep cash flowing in the short term, but it does nothing to actually repair damaged homes, businesses and public infrastructure. FEMA estimates that cost at $68 million, some of which must be picked up by new state funds.
Gone, too, is the hope of many homeowners in Greater Minnesota for property tax relief via increased local government aid. According to the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, 70 municipalities outside the Twin Cities, places such as Bemidji and Worthington, would reap more than $25 million from revival of the bipartisan tax bill that won large legislative majorities last spring. For example, the bill’s increased state aid would allow Winona to slash its proposed 16 percent increase in property taxes all the way to 2 percent.
Pawlenty has said he supports the bill’s closing of corporate tax loopholes and the relief for local property taxpayers that it would fund, but he vetoed those provisions last spring in a side dispute over how to forecast the state’s budget.
Whatever the governor’s motivation, the winners again were big businesses and the wealthy and the losers were ordinary Minnesota taxpayers. They, by the way, have been forking over more than $1 billion a year in property taxes just for local roads and bridges.
Which brings us back to the reasons a special session was being discussed at all. Those who have watched the deterioration of Minnesota’s roads and bridges most closely say it reached crisis stage long before Aug. 1.
Bipartisan legislators responded with comprehensive transportation funding in 2005 and this year, only to be rebuffed by Pawlenty vetoes.
Fortunately, time hasn’t run out. The governor and legislative leaders should come together for a bipartisan special session that addresses the state’s emergency needs while laying out a vision for Minnesota’s future.