Duluth editorial pans Dayton transportation package

The Duluth News Tribune is the first newspaper out of the gate with an editorial panning Gov. Dayton’s transportation proposal, which includes raising the metro sales tax, increasing the license tab fees, and adding a gas tax.

In an editorial published today, the News Tribune editorial asks if there’s another way to cover the cost of fixing roads, bridges, and transit other than fees and taxes? But it doesn’t identify an area of the budget to be cut.

But before we scream “uncle!” as a sign of surrender, how about this? How about cutting from the state’s existing budget to cover at least some of the cost of keeping up with transportation needs, as legislative Republicans have suggested? Couldn’t we at least look if there’s some cutting that could be done to free up a bit of cash? More than 30 states pay for bridge and highway repairs from their general funds, recognizing that a safe and efficient transportation system is a core responsibility of government. Minnesota doesn’t.

Or how about using some of the state’s $1 billion surplus to eat into the transportation funding gap? Yes, much of the surplus — if not all of it, according to experts — will be eaten up by inflation. But can’t we at least check before taxing and only taxing?

Dayton seems to have tunnel vision when it comes to taxes and tax increases. On Tuesday, as a followup to Monday’s transportation proposal, he indicated he wants to to collect and spend more than $40 billion from state taxpayers in the next two years. In addition to transportation, his proposed budget would increase funding for things that really are worthy, even if we struggle to pay for them, things like early-childhood education, child care, adult human services, the University of Minnesota and more.

The editorial acknowledges that taxes will probably be required, but asks why taxes alone need to be used?

What else is there? The editorial didn’t say. But let’s offer two additional ideas (a) an increase in transit fares and (b) toll roads and bridges, such as the new St. Croix River bridge near Bayport, which could capture money from Wisconsin residents who don’t contribute a fair share toward the upkeep of the roads they use.

  • Gary F

    The Duluth News Tribune, second guessing a DFL governor, wow.

    • Maybe not too much “wow.” It’s a Forum Communications Company. I believe the editorials are either written at the home base or the editors are told what to write.

    • John O.

      And, to add to Bob’s point, the DNT did endorse Mike McFadden over Al Franken last fall. That would have been almost unthinkable not that long ago.

      • But that’s not to say the points are invalid. They should provide a jumping-off point for an intelligent debate. Not sure we’re going to get one at the Capitol, but maybe.

        Here’s the thing. Many of the things being said now are the same things that Steve Murphy, at the time DFL-Red Wing, said before the gas tax was raised last time. And it didn’t make a dent, really.

        Why? Because people don’t use as much gas as they used to.

        And you hear that in this debate already too. A higher gas tax will discourage people from driving or send them to transit (which outside of a very small geographical area of the state, stinks).

        So what is it we want the gas tax to do, exactly? Discourage people from driving? Or fund transportation? Because it’s clear it can’t do both.

        Anyway, for purposes of discussion, it doesn’t matter who the Forum endorsed or even what it’s politics are if the opinion it’s offering are fact-based.

        • John O.

          Legislators try to do both to appease everyone. Invariably, it never totally works out that way and all of the lobbyists live on to retain their clients for the next session.

          A huge portion of the economic engine of this state depends on moving people, raw materials, goods and services from Point A to Point B. And a very large portion of that activity occurs on concrete and asphalt.

    • Eddie

      Not Just McFadden endorsement but Forum Comm also endorsed Republican Mills over incumbent Nolan. Obviously not in touch with the Northlanders but the only rag we have for local news.

      • Nolan, the DFLer, got 48.5%. Mills got 47.1%.

        • Eddie

          Last I checked 48.5% is greater than 47.1%!!! Break it down by the area served by the DNT and those numbers become a landslide for Nolan.

          • It is, of course. But I don’t think a 1.4% spread can really define an area’s politics. I don’t necessarily that puts the DNT out of touch with an area. It might put them out of touch with 48.5% of those who voted, however.

          • Eddie

            If you parse the District to the area served by the DNT, that slight majority becomes a landslide for Nolan, ergo the DNT’s endorsement is not reflective of it subscribers.

          • What’s the political breakdown of the DNT’s subscribers?

  • John O.

    The “new” management at DNT (Forum Communications) shouldn’t overlook the fact that the late Rep. Jim Oberstar used his position as House Transportation Committee chair to finance a LOT of construction in the Duluth/Northeast Minnesota area, paid for with federal highway dollars.

    • Which reminds me: A lot of money is going to be spent on moving Hwy 53 because the mining company wants the land on which it sits in Virginia. There’s $220 million right there.


      • I thought the mining company already owned the land and did the highway department a solid by letting them build highway 53 in its original spot with the understanding that the mining company wouldn’t be on the hook to move 53 if they wanted to mine that area…

        • That is my understanding. Sins of the transportation father.

  • Gary F

    INCREASE IN TRANSIT FARES? How about people actually paying to ride the Green Line?

    • It’s still not clear to me exactly why the #16 bus continues to operate on the Green LIne route now that the LRT is running. For the record, I like the Green Line.

      • Gary F

        Because when its hot or cold out, it means a shorter distance to your home.

        I know a few folks that use it regularly, and there is little to no fare enforcement and the people know that.

  • jon

    Well if they don’t want us to raise taxes, we could try creating new fees…
    we’ve seen how that works out…

    Maybe we could increase pull tabs to fund our roads… We’ve played card before, and it worked out great right?

    Or… perhaps we should cut funding else where in the government, it isn’t like we are struggling to pay for “things like early-childhood education, child care, adult human services, the University of Minnesota and more.”

    Man this is hard… maybe we should check with the experts… “much of the surplus — if not all of it, according to experts”
    Well they seem to be no help, and even if they were clearly we should double check their math… cause what the heck do experts know that I can’t make up and convince a news paper to print…

    hhhmmm maybe there are some other options, but maybe the Governor knows he still has to negotiate with the other side on this topic, so he’s leaving himself some wiggle room… or maybe we need to stop electing politicians and appointing experts and start having the editorializors run the country…

    • I don’t understand your point at all. Are you saying the newspaper editorial doesn’t provide a jumping-off point for an intelligent discussion on the issue? Or that the issue shouldn’t be discussed? Do you have any thoughts on alternatives?

      We can’t really chart a new way of thinking, if we don’t actually think in a new way. Let’s forget about everyone retreating to their usual corners to have a political debate.

      “oh, he’s a DFLer, what do you expect?” or “Oh, he’s a Republican, what do you expect?” isn’t really a valid substitute for retesting what we believe.

      This is our chance to do that. Anyone?

      • jon

        My point is simply that the author seems to be complaining about raising taxes, and suggesting we pull money from “some where else” or perhaps “any where else” just so long as it is something that doesn’t effect me or my pet concerns.

        Every one wants free money, no one wants to pay their fair share, and far to often the statement being made a contradictory.
        For example “Lets take transportation funding from the general fund!” followed by struggling to pay for [fill in the blank] out of the general fund.

        If we want to have a serious discussion about monetary issues, we need to get rid of armchair accountants who assume we can find money “some where else where I won’t notice something was cut, and/or tax increases.”

        There comes a time when we need to accept that we as a society need to pay our fair share, via taxes, to get government services. We can’t expect it to be free, and we shouldn’t expect it to be free, this is not to say we shouldn’t hold those in charge of spending our tax dollars accountable for getting the best value for our money, but part of holding them accountable is not cringing every time we need to pay taxes.

        • I don’t think anyone expects anything to be free but, sure, the discussion SHOULD eventually get to a question of priorities IF you believe the rest of the budget should be cut.

          However, I think if there’s one thing the current transportation funding system proven is it doesn’t work.

          We can argue — and we should argue — about why it doesn’t work, but I think we should be able to question whether the answer to something that doesn’t work is “do more of it”

        • Nick K

          I think people are also frustrated because when budgets to governement agencies do get cut, the people in charge seem (to me) to choose to make cuts that taxpayers will notice and feel the most (e.g. reducing the hours an agency answers phones) rather than something that the taxpayers wouldn’t notice (e.g. smaller travel budgets, limits on conference attendance, reduction in non-critical training). Without having access to very detailed budgets of every agency, it is hard to know how much could be cut; however, private sector businesses are often able to trim budgets without an impact to their customers.

  • Junebug

    I think we should all put pressure on our congressional representatives to do more to make Minnesota less of a giver state and take back at least portion of what we give to the federal government in revenue. More transit and road funding would be a great start. My representative, John Kline, seems happy with the status quo. I disagree with him.

  • Gary F

    Why not stop wasting our money doing studies on a new train to Duluth? to Chicago? Street cars in St Paul?

    • I’d like to see a breakout of expenses before we get too much further. What exactly are the projects anticipated and what is the ratio of expenses on studies vs. actual construction and what ARE the studies.

      In Woodbury, you can’t get a bus after 750AM even though we increased the wheelage tax — twice — for the metro-area transit board (most of our money, I suspect goes elsewhere).

      Some of it has been spent on the Gateway bus corridor, which makes some sense (although I think just adding a bus after 750 AM makes more sense).

      The environmental impact study will cost $3 million. It includes $100,000 to include health effects (that part is privately studied) because it might include filling in part of Tanner’s Lake, i believe. And the motorcycle shops near there don’t want to relocate to accommodate it.

      I don’t favor doing anything without proper studying, but I would like to see how MUCH of our transportation future spending goes toward studies. And I don’t hear much talk of capping the cost of studies. That seems like one option.

      You don’t hear a lot about that when politicians are talking about crumbling roads and bridges.

      At the moment, I don’t sense a holistic and unified approach to our transportation future.

      As Sen. Durenberger was fond of saying, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

      • John

        While I’m not, in principle, against the idea of capping study costs on infrastructure, I wonder what percentage of the transportation budget they eat up. In other words, if we cut study funding in half, how many more miles of roadway could be built with that money? Given the exceedingly high cost of building a bridge/road, I doubt it would amount to much. It’s a start though.

        Last time I checked, the motorcycle shops don’t have a lot of choice. Isn’t imminent domain written into basically every real estate transaction? Perhaps the political cost for those who would make the decision to force the shops out is too high.

        Finally, just once, during the election cycle, I would LOVE to hear a journalist ask a would be elected official who is touting cuts to programs as the cure to all our funding issues this: “Specifically, what programs or waste would you cut, and by how much?” Maybe that question gets asked, and not reported, but I bet it’s a rare politician who would be able or willing to answer it.

        edit: I reread what you wrote, Bob, and I think I just spent 10 minutes writing a post that in essence agrees with what you just said. . . that was not my intent, but there you go.

  • MikeB

    Roads, bridges, and transit costs real money, more than can be found in the couch cushions. And much, much more than can be found in the always unnamed budget cuts.

    The editorial reads as more of a desktop tantrum than a proposal for realistic solutions, though Forum Communications is hardly the only one doing this.

  • MrE85

    If the editorials for the News-Tribune are being written in North Dakota, as I suspect they are, then the headline should read “Fargo editorial pans Dayton transportation plan.”

    • This question of who or where the editorial was written seems like a typical distraction that’s SOP for political debate anymore, and helps create the problems we have.

      If there’s a legitimate discussion to be had about how to pay for transportation funding, what difference does it make?

      Instead of having that discussion, we tend to engage in these sideshows. I don’t see how that leads to good public policy.

      Let’s face it, people don’t want a substantive discussion or debate on matters of public policy. They mostly just want “their side” to prevail.

      That’s worked out well so far, eh?

      • MrE85

        If an out-of-state news organization assumes the editorial voice of daily newspaper and changes it significantly, that seems more than a distraction to me. But back to the topic….you suggest toll roads and higher fares (in addition to taxes) as a possible solution. I’m open to slightly higher fares (as they have in Denver, which also has bus and light rail service to a large metro area), but I’m no fan of toll roads/bridges. I couldn’t avoid them when I drove to Indianapolis and back last week, and I would just as soon not see them in Minnesota.

        • Moffitt

          My thanks to comment or Steve for his insight on the paper’s editorial policies.

  • Nick K

    We could shake some money loose by ending funding for the Agriculture Research Institute, and the various Councils on (Blacks, Chicanos, Asia-Pacific, and Indians (using the terminology found in the budget breakdown). I also suspect that many government agencies have waste that could be cut, but of course there isn’t a line item in the budget for pointless spending (I’m thinking things like travel expenses, office furniture, etc.)

    • kevinfromminneapolis

      All for it. But that’d get you about $15.

  • MrE85

    Here’s another idea for transportation funding we don’t need in Minnesota: sticking it to people who buy plug-in vehicles: http://www.mlive.com/lansing-news/index.ssf/2015/01/michigan_road_funding_new_fees.html

    • kevinfromminneapolis

      You have to do something to capture revenue from people who use the road but don’t pay or pay relatively little gas tax. It doesn’t stick anything to them any more than having to pay the gas tax sticks it to people whose cars run on gas. And while electric or plug-in vehicles may be virtuous toward other goals, the virtue doesn’t justify essentially waving the fee for driving and imparting wear on roads.

      • Moffitt

        Perhaps we need to see plug-in vehicle owners as part of the solution, not as part of the problem. Likewise, smart guys like you who take the bus.

        • kevinfromminneapolis

          But they are part of the problem: Gas tax revenues sink in part because they’re among the leading group of drivers using less gas. They may be the solution to other ills real or perceived, but when it comes to declining gas tax revenues they fall squarely under the list of causes.

          • jon

            This might be a good time to define the problem… it isn’t that gas tax revenues are falling… It is that we can’t afford to pay for the road repairs.

            What has change to create a this problem where none existed before? Gas prices fell. Which has more to do with Saudi oil than it does with plug-in vehicles… (20% gas tax on $4 a gallon is $0.80 a gallon, same math on $2 a gallon is $0.40 a gallon…)

            Raising the gas tax fixes the immediate problem… but the looming issue of plug-in cars, and ultra high mileage vehicles is still there on the horizon…
            We could increase tab prices for high mileage cars some quick math suggests that I’ll pay about $5,000 in gas taxes (at $4 a gallon) over 100K miles (we’ll say that’s the presumed life of the car though it’ll probably go a lot father than that.) at 3k miles every 3 months (safe estimate for most people, high for me) that’d be about 9 years of driving… $5000/9 years is about $500 a year that we’d have to increase tab prices for people who don’t use gas… I think my tabs last year were just shy of $200 and new cars are higher than that… so we’ll say roughly $1000 a year for registration for every one, and we can cut the gas tax completely… Or better still, cut the gas tax mostly, bring it down to 5-10% (we’ll drop the price of tabs accordingly) and then we’ll have all those folks from WI who cross the border regularly filling up in MN instead of WI cause gas will be 20 cents cheaper here… and we’ll get the extra revenue from that too…

            Or course $1000 in tabs is a lot, and right now people who don’t drive much would pay more and people who drive a lot would pay less…
            Of course we could pull this money from an income tax, or some other source, or combination of them… but that would be fixing a long term problem to solve a short term issue… and since when have politicians done anything other than kicking the can down the road?

          • Very little of what you wrote about current gas tax revenue is true. The fall-off in anticipated revenue pre-dated the drop in gasoline prices.

            And there’s no indication that this won’t continue to be a problem since fuel efficiency mandates are increasing, suggesting that people will continue to use less gasoline.

          • kevinfromminneapolis

            This is incorrect on several accounts. Declining revenues *are* why we can’t afford the repairs. And gas taxes are an excise tax, meaning it’s taxed at a set rate per unit sold, not as a percentage of the sale price. The wholesale tax would add that component, but it’s not there yet.

            Fuel efficeniy’s looming drag on gas tax revenues has been talked about going back at least to the middle of the last decade.

  • Dave

    You’re going to need multiple funding sources. It isn’t just taxes. It’s going to be user fees, gas tax, wheelage tax (whatever TF that is), car registration, transit fare, etc.

    The debate you will not see is the one in which we decide the role of government.

    – do we want good roads and bridges?

    if yes, then you need to pay for it, and that doesn’t mean stealing money from other things the government does for us.

    if no, then, well, we’re already there. congratulations!

    • Nick K

      “if yes, then you need to pay for it, and that doesn’t mean stealing money from other things the government does for us.” Or we could decide that some of the other things the government spends money on aren’t necessary or proper.

      • Dave

        Name something you would cut, and how much it would save us, and tell us what people it would affect, and how.

        • Nick K

          We could cut all the Councils on (Blacks, Latinos, Asia-Pacific, and Indians). It would save about $3 million dollars. It would affect the people drawing a paycheck for serving on those councils. Literally nothing else would change. I would cut the new senate office building. It would save however much of the $93 million that hasn’t been spent. Logically it would affect no one, as the senate has been able to function without it. If I were really going to go for something big, I would think about getting rid of the Charter School Lease Aid. That appears to be a $112 million dollar money pit. Finally, there appears to be a $20 million dollar line item for Enlistment Incentives under the heading Dept of Military Affairs. I think I’d cut that too, just to see what happens.
          All that being said, it might be possible to wring cost savings from departments without a corresponding lack in service. Determining that, however, would require more information than I have access to.

  • Jeff

    Seems like Dayton is being the adult in the room. I haven’t heard any proposals that can raise the needed $6B. Sounds like the $1B surplus has been spent several times over and nobody wants to say where they are cutting other government programs or getting rid of waste. Minnesota has one the efficiently run state governments (I do work for a state agency and can attest to that). I’m not sure where the waste is.

    The piecemeal approach to transportation funding isn’t a very wise approach anyways. Republicans are supposed to be the fiscal responsible party but all they do is bond and look for one-time money and don’t have a long term plan.

    Most people haven’t had a real raise in long, long time and keep getting squeezed. So it doesn’t surprise me when people are outraged by a tax increase, but no one else seems to have a better proposal. As @Dave says “Do we want good roads and bridges?” Or not?

    • Nick K

      The “adult” in the room is proposing huge regressive taxes that will hurt the pooorest people in the state the most. Democrats are supposed to be the party of the common person, but they seem to be trying to use taxation to keep them buried in poverty.

      • Again, for purposes of discussion, I don’t think politicking is a logical response in discussing public policy.

        I mean, yeah, I get why it makes people feel good. But what good does it actually do in the big scheme of things?

        How do we get past that and to an intelligent give and take with actual ideas?

        • Nick K

          The regressive nature of the proposed taxes is relevant to this issue. If taxation didn’t have consequences, there would be no need for a debate at all.

      • Jeff

        So the adult thing would be to ignore the problem and hope it goes away? This has been the approach at the national level for the last 6 years.

        The gas tax is regressive but then I thought it was “user fee” last time it was raised. We can raise taxes on rich people again – is that your solution?

        • Nick K

          My solution is to cut somewhere else. See one of my other comments for more details.

          • Jeff

            I appreciate the cut suggestions in the spirit of give and take, but you’re only up to $228 million or so even if it could be agreed to. (I think the Senate office building already left the barn).

          • Nick K

            Much of that (say $115 million) is a yearly cost. That amount of money would be a start. Access to addtional data would be required to see where other money could be freed up. For instance, could we cut back on some bonding (e.g. convention centers in St Cloud and Rochester) and use the money that would have been spent servicing that debt to fix our roads? I would like to.

          • Jeff

            Politically this is asking people to give up stuff so we all don’t have to pay as much – one person’s waste is another’s necessity. We’ve been under-funding transportation for a long time and I can’t see how to get there without some pain. Otherwise, just keep kicking it down the road (so to speak).

          • I want to hear more about the transportation future and what it looks like. I need to hear that articulated and then see how the funding mechanism makes that possible.

            I know it’s a pretty easy sell to say “see those potholes? We don’t have the money to fix those?”

            The anti gas-tax people say we already spend $1,000 per resident on transportation. In that money, can we really not fix potholes?

            There’s also some other realities here. There isn’t going to be any more transit money coming from Washington. The Republicans are in charge now. It’s just not going to happen and I don’t see transit expansion without that money being possible.

            I get the license tab fee increase, I get the gas tax increase. I’m not a big fan of the wheelage tax because I think it ends up outside of my county.

            I think the metro sales tax increase is problematic because it pushes up closer to 10 percent and I think that’s a LOT.

            I think there’s plenty of options here. I think we have get beyond the “take it or leave its” vs. the “cut somewhere elses”

          • Jeff

            I’ll vote for you Bob! Maybe as an esteemed journalist you can exert some influence and get something creative done. (I’ll even support that private Bob lane from Woodbury to MPR.)

            I agree that there needs to be more of a “vision thing”. Where do we want to be in 20 years or so? And how do we fund it? But given being behind the maintenance curve and the myopic nature of American politics I’m a little jaded that anything of that nature could happen.

        • I certainly don’t believe in wishing the problem away. On the other hand, I’m struck by how unimaginative the Dayton plan is. As I indicated, the gas tax as a funding source is flawed, because we know — especially with increasing fuel standards — that less fuel will be used and the revenue will drop, and probably not meet its target, just as the last increase failed.

          I don’t think that means don’t do it, I think it means let’s come p with other ideas.

          I notice the cost for tabs for a new car one year old is about $350. A beater costs about $40. They both use the roads and probably inflict he same damage. If we believe users should be primarily responsible for paying — I do — what is the $310 difference in responsibility? What if we eliminated tabs based on value? Essentially extending the wheelage tax method to tabs?

          I think increased tolls also is a potential solution. It’s obviously worked elsewhere.

          And finally — and I know this is heresy on a public radio cite — transit riders aren’t being asked to increase their funding. Should they be?

          • Nick K

            What do you think about a congestion fee for downtown St Paul and/or Minneapolis (like the one in London)?

          • Jeff

            You forced me to actually read the proposal. $1.45B is coming from increased tab fees (so there you go), $4.4B from wholesale gas tax (not sure what difference taxing at wholesale level makes) and some borrowing $2B – all for roads.

            Not that I’m overly informed on the subject but if it’s user based, I haven’t seen any taxing scheme not based on gas taxes that might work. Oregon was experimenting with a distance based system, but I’m guessing most people wouldn’t be happy having the government monitor their miles. Maybe a McDonalds drive-thru fee?

          • Nick K

            If we’re going to raise new revenue, I think we should look beyond gas and cars. Every aspect of the economy relies on transportation, so everything should be fair game. Ideally the tax would be progressive and unavoidable. To that end, how about a small property tax on cabins/second homes/ and commerical property? Maybe also a congestion fee for driving into busy areas (the downtowns, the airport, the Mall of America, Canal Park in Duluth).

  • Steve W.

    My partner was recently a part of the DNT’s Ed Board as a citizen member for a few months and I’d like to add a little clarity to the comments about the decision making process. The “Our Views” our written by the Editorial Page Editor with the help/feedback from the local Editorial Board (usually a couple citizen members and a couple employee members) and tend to be disbelieving of any big policy ideas. The Editorial Endorsements being mentioned were all handed down by Forum Communications and such was noted in those endorsements when they were published. As the publisher they do dictate the endorsements for anything above the state legislature.

    As for getting the “conversation started” the Ed Page tends to throw stones without much in the area of producing ideas itself on the regular…

  • al

    Bob — thanks for not only forwarding the DNT’s editorial, but actually responding to readers comments.
    Here’s a question I have that the press has either ignored or willfully ignored — the 2008 Sales Tax Amendment was supposed to be a cure (perhaps partial) for fixing bridges/roads etc. Pretty much the same spiel that Dayton spewed (and backed by the same special interests). How has that special tax been spent? I remember that a minimum of 40% of that tax was to go to LRT efforts — I fear that the percentage actually given that direction was much higher.