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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

February 25, 2019

St. Cloud Times, Feb. 23

Walz offers solid start to stable transportation funding

Gov. Tim Walz certainly followed through — and then some — on his campaign promise to bolster funding for Minnesota’s transportation system.

The Democrat’s call Tuesday for a 20-cent hike in the state gas tax, coupled with other tax and fee hikes and state borrowing, would yield about $18 billion by 2040 to bolster transportation across the state.

While Walz’s proposal needs some tweaking, it gets to the core of what Minnesota needs — a dedicated, stable funding mechanism for a transportation system that needs more deliberate movement away from simply “more lanes and more pavement” as the answer to all our transportation needs.

What we like

The best aspect of Walz’s plan is a proposal to index the state gas tax to inflation.

The fact that Minnesota does not have such a link to inflation creates the debate legislators face session after session after session: Democrats and Republicans agree more transportation funding is needed, but they refuse to compromise on the sources of more funding.

Indexing the gas tax to inflation — even partially — would lessen this debate.

As is being noted again with Walz’s proposals, more than half of states have increased their funding streams dedicated to transportation in the past 10 years. And of those, about a dozen have their gas taxes indexed to inflation.

Minnesota should take a similar approach, especially when the goal is a dedicated, stable funding mechanism.

Other aspects of Walz’s package worth support are:

— Ideas aimed at expanding bus and other transit systems. The governor proposes a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase for the seven-county Twin Cities for these. Plus, he seeks to borrow his way toward $230 million in transit upgrades by about 2030. And he wants part of an increase in the motor vehicle sales tax to fund transit projects. Combined, that’s more than $1 billion.

— Reasonable increases in key tax rates and fees involving vehicle sales and registrations. Among these are hiking the motor vehicle registration tax rate to 1.5 percent of the vehicle’s value (it’s now 1.25 percent) and he wants to raise the base tax fee from from $10 to $45.

Up for debate

The governor’s push for a 20-cent-per-gallon tax increase is too much, especially if indexing does happen.

Republican leaders are correct to note gas taxes can fall hardest on those who can least afford them. Plus, Minnesota will do itself no image favors if it jumps from 24th to fourth in state gas tax rankings.

The 10-cent hike Walz mentioned while campaigning seems more reasonable.

Also worthy of discussion is the amount of borrowing the governor seeks, as well as making sure funding increases are fairly distributed across the state.

Finally, it’s important for Republicans to put forth their ideas now on how they want to achieve a dedicated, stable funding mechanism.

That Walz called for a gas tax increase is no surprise. The same goes for Republican leaders’ quickly rejecting it while renewing their desire to tap the state surplus or use general fund dollars.

How does using a surplus in good economic times create stability during bad times? As for using the general fund, please specify what other programs might lose funds. And, of course, offer ideas that push Minnesota’s transportation system forward in a way that sets the stage for the future and away from an mindset exclusively set on “more lanes, more pavement” to meet Minnesota’s transportation needs.

Roads will always be the top priority, but better solutions for some transportation needs are available. Will we reach out and take the first step? Now is the time to start.

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The Free Press of Mankato, Feb. 23

Renewed push needed on Minnesota River

Why it matters: Much improvement has come to the Minnesota River, but tackling E. coli pollution has been ignored for too long.

In the early 1990s, Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson announced a major initiative to improve the state’s namesake river, listed as one of the most polluted in the country.

The state and national effort that followed put flood-prone land into conservation programs and created a groundswell of support among residents and local governments to care for a resource that had too long been ignored and abused.

While much has been done, some major issues have been ignored.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is hoping to renew efforts to tackle one of the problems: E. coli contamination.

Regulators say the state must do more to crack down on failed septic system and livestock farm waste.

Although much of the river was listed more than two decades ago as impaired from nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, the MPCA has spent the time since conducting more detailed studies including the elevated levels of E. coli, which comes from human sewage and livestock manure. The E. coli is particularly high in the smaller rivers and streams that feed the Minnesota with the larger volume of water in the main river diluting levels some.

The MPCA is calling for reducing E. coli levels by 19 percent in some stretches and up to 60 percent in others.

To do that will require more inspections of private septic systems and requiring upgrades for those out of compliance. There are also an unknown number of straight pipe systems that run waste directly onto the ground or into streams.

Blue Earth County officials estimate there are more than 100 straight pipe septic systems in their county alone, according to a report by the Star Tribune.

The agency is also proposing ways to reduce livestock manure runoff, through measures like better storage systems, limiting the spreading of manure in the winter and other strategies.

The cost of increased regulation is relatively minimal for such a large watershed — up to $10 million over the next 20 years. That’s an amount the state, perhaps with federal assistance, should easily provide.

Southern Minnesota has rich and abundant farm land and a strong livestock sector. Ag is an important part of the economy. But, like any industry, it must be done in a way that provides basic protections to the environment. As for private septic systems, there’s no excuse for allowing failing systems and those that are imminent threats to public health and the environment.

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Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb. 22

Election security aid remains held hostage in Minnesota

The one-year holdup of funds in the Legislature must end.

Faced with real and growing election threats, a Republican Congress and president nearly one year ago provided money for every state in the nation to improve its voting security systems. States, knowing that lost time increased their vulnerability, quickly got to work.

All but Minnesota. Alone among the states, Minnesota’s $6.6 million still languishes in an account — untouched and untouchable. Four states require legislative permission to spend federal money. Inexcusably, only in Minnesota have lawmakers failed to give this technical go-ahead. This year, it appears, the foot-dragging continues, particularly in the Republican-dominated Senate.

“Minnesota now has a target on its back,” said Secretary of State Steve Simon, who has been pleading fruitlessly to be allowed to deploy the funds even as the state falls further and further behind others, making it a more likely point of attack.

There is no other way to put this: The state Senate is the roadblock here, where an elections committee led by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer continues to drag its feet on the release.

Earlier this year, House and Senate leaders pledged to make release of the federal money an “early win” for this session. This should have been an easy way for parties to come together, since they would be simply passing through funds already dedicated to a sole purpose and guided by federal oversight.

Commendably, the House did just that earlier this week. In a strong show of bipartisan support, representatives voted 105-24 to release all $6.6 million. Several House Republican legislators had participated in the working group Simon convened over the summer, along with House and Senate DFL lawmakers, citizen groups, cities, counties, townships and others, all working to develop the necessary four-year plan for the money. Senate Republican legislators declined to participate, Simon said, sending a staff member instead.

Disappointingly, the Senate has refused to give its consent to full release so far. Instead, senators have peeled off the $1.5 million chunk Simon fought for last year in a bid to avoid seeing all the funds caught up in end-of-session games. It was, in fact, the stated intent of the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission to release the funds early in 2018 specifically to “have an impact on the 2018 election cycle.”

Kiffmeyer, who leads the elections committee, told an editorial writer that she has “many questions” about how the money will be used and insists there is “no need to rush through.” That assessment appears to be strongly at odds with U.S. security officials, who recently briefed Simon and other elections officials on the need to counter the known threats to the 2020 election. There is another clock ticking here. Funds unspent by 2023 will revert to the federal Treasury. Minnesota has lost one of those years.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a recent letter to House Speaker Melissa Hortman that he was committed to passing the full amount, “but only after a robust public discussion and vetting of these one-time funds.” That is a test seldom applied to other federal funds received. One must question why Senate Republicans then skipped the five months of discussion in the working group. Gazelka has said the Senate bill is superior because it includes matching funds required by the feds. What he fails to note is that states have two years to provide that $330,000 match. It is not needed in 2019 to begin accessing the funds this year.

There simply is no reason to keep these funds idle any longer. Gazelka told an editorial writer that a few more months — until the session’s scheduled end in May — shouldn’t matter much. But by then, Minnesota will be a full 15 months behind 49 other states. As for oversight, the funds will be subject to federal audits, reports and scrutiny that includes accounting for time in 15-minute increments.

The Senate should drop its artificial hurdles and allow cybersecurity improvements to start without any further delays.