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Omnibus bill passed by House

Published (5/20/2011)
By Mike Cook
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Critics say transit does not fare well in the omnibus transportation finance conference committee report.

Sponsored by Rep. Michael Beard (R-Shakopee) and Sen. Joe Gimse (R-Willmar), HF1140*/ SF898 checks in at $4.5 billion in total spending, with $62.16 million coming from the General Fund. User fees and taxes make up much of the remaining funding. However, the General Fund spending is a $118 million reduction from current biennial funding.

Passed 71-61 by the House and 36-26 by the Senate May 19, the bill awaits action by the governor.

The bill includes a $109.44 million reduction to the Metropolitan Council and $7.62 million reduction to Greater Minnesota transit. Funding for elderly and disabled transit in Greater Minnesota would be held level, as would special transportation services under the Metropolitan Council.

Beard said the numbers aren’t as bad as they may appear because there has been an uptick in Motor Vehicle Sales Tax revenues, of which at least 40 percent must go to transit operations. Beard said it is forecast to provide $98 million in new transit funds in the upcoming biennium to be split between metro and Greater Minnesota transit.

MVST funds were not designed to “supplant and fully fund” Greater Minnesota transit, said Rep. Terry Morrow (DFL-St. Peter), noting in nine of the last 10 years MVST revenues have not met expectations.

Transit officials warned the cuts could result in sizeable transit fare increases, significant route reductions and the laying off of hundreds of employees.

To help back-fill a portion of its funding reduction, the report permits the council to transfer uncommitted money in the Livable Communities Fund — used to address affordable and lifecycle housing needs and provide funds to assist communities in carrying out their development plans — and the amounts levied and collected under the right-of-way acquisition loan fund program — used to preserve right-of-way in rapidly growing areas — for transit, paratransit, light rail and commuter rail services.

Permissive language is included that would permit money from the Counties Transit Improvement Board be transferred to the Metropolitan Council for transit operations, subject to a referendum. Beard previously said the board, whose activities to improve transit are funded with a quarter-percent sales tax in five Twin Cities metropolitan area counties, has $90 million in reserves. He said when the board was authorized in 2008, its first $30 million went to the Met Council to help with an operating deficit.

The bill also:

• increases the appropriation from the state airports fund for grants for airport development and assistance by $1.775 million in fiscal year 2013 only, which reduces the state airports fund balance;

• prohibits MnDOT from expending funds for commuter and intercity passenger rail planning unless there are special circumstances;

• allows for annual permits for transporting oversized waterfront structures;

• expands eligibility for the Gold Star license plate;

• requiring carbon monoxide poisoning awareness in driver’s education; and

• establishes a $2 donation program for promotion of anatomical gifts implemented as part of vehicle registration and driver licensing.

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