Minnesota pols move to cut transportation research

Humphrey School of Public Affairs

In his Star Tribune op-ed today, Lee Munnich, a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, relays a troubling new strategy for politicians who want to prevent any traction for a policy with which they disagree: ban it from being researched.

It’s hard for pols to make decisions on issues, if there’s no intelligent data to guide them.

Filed by Republican Rep. Bob Barrett of Lindstrom, HF 389 puts the kibosh on mileage-based user fees.

The University of Minnesota and the Board of Trustees of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities shall not utilize state funds or resources, including but not limited to appropriations and funds provided under subdivision 1, to: (1) study, test, demonstrate, evaluate, or promote a potential mileage-based user fee, or to contract for the performance of these prohibited activities; or (2) provide funds including membership dues to any organization regularly engaging in research or advocacy concerning mileage-based user fees, including but not limited to the Mileage-Based User Fee Alliance.

It’s aimed at killing an alternative to the gas tax before it’s born. Under a mileage-based fee system, drivers pay a tax based on how much driving they do, rather than a per-gallon tax.

Regardless of what you may think about mileage-based user fees, any supporter of free and open societies ought to be concerned about politicians dictating what institutions of higher learning may or may not “study, test, demonstrate, evaluate or promote.” If such censorship is allowed for this issue, what’s to stop politicians from censoring debate and study associated with other public-policy issues?

If mileage-based fees are ever used in Minnesota — still a very big “if” — there are dozens of complex policy, technological and logistical issues that would need to be navigated. The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs frequently researches these kinds of issues, brings experts in to supply information and insights, and convenes key leaders in the community for a vigorous discussion of these issues. Vetting those issues helps improve the ultimate decision about whether or not to pursue the policy, and how to shape the policy.

The Humphrey School studied the fee in 2011 via the Humphrey School.

Its recommendation:

The mileage-based user fee approach is a potential supplement or an alternative funding method to Minnesota’s current motor fuel tax. An MBUF system could be created that requires all drivers to pay their proportional share of roadway system costs while being flexible enough to be effective regardless of the type of future energy sources used for a vehicle. Still, MBUF is largely unfamiliar to the public and policymakers, and complex from the technical and policy standpoints. Many policy, technological and operational issues remain unanswered.

Therefore, the Task Force does not recommend a statewide, full-scale implementation of MBUF until concerns are satisfactorily addressed. However, the Task Force recommends that exploration of an MBUF system for Minnesota continue to advance in a measured, informed and thoughtful manner guided by the six findings and recommendations presented above.

“Informed and thoughtful manner” might include considering all relevant data to assist lawmakers in making an intelligent decision on how to pay for the state’s roads and bridges when more and more cars using them are using less and less gasoline.