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Highway 212 expansion bill introduced and other happenings

Here’s a roundup of some of the happenings around the area:

  • A bill has been introduced in the State Legislature (chief authored in the House by Rep. Ernie Leidiger and in the Senate by Sen. Julianne Ortman) to expand U.S. Highway 212 to four lanes from Jonathan Carver Parkway to County Road 43 in Dahlgren Township.  Also included in the bill is $8 million for construction of an interchange at US-212 and County Road 140 in Southwest Chaska.  This bill would be a critical next step in making sure that US-212 is built out to four lanes to Norwood-Young America.  Additionally, the CR-140 interchange is critical to the success of the Southwest Chaska Master Plan recently ratified by the City Council.  This is a good bill and I hope it will be included in the omnibus transportation package this year.
  • State Representative Joe Hoppe submitted his year-end campaign finance report on February 25, some three-and-one-half weeks late.  Of note in Hoppe’s report is that he collected over $1,700 in “special source” funding in 2012 that he was forced to return.  “Special sources” include lobbyists, political party units, and political action committees.  Additionally, Hoppe’s penchant for filing late in 2012 cost him over $2,600 in late fees with the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.  Some fiscal responsibility…
  • The City of Chaska City Council meeting tonight has been cancelled.
  • The Chaska Hawks girls basketball team (ranked #7 in Class AAA) will play Richfield (ranked #2 in Class AAA) on Thursday night with a berth in the State Tournament on the line.  The Hawks romped past Benilde-St. Margaret 69-41 on Saturday to reach the section final.  The game will be at 7 p.m. at Minnetonka High School.
  • On the Chaska restaurant front, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit is open in Chaska Commons, while downtown’s Egg & Pie Diner is headed for a mid-March opening.  Construction is also underway at the future location of BullChicks in Chaska Commons.

Comparing the bonding proposals

With the Minnesota Republican Senate caucus finally releasing their bonding proposal this morning, we now have all three proposals to review and evaluate.

Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed $775 million in general obligation bonds, Senate Republicans $462 million, and House Republicans $280 million.  House Republicans also proposed a $221 million package of bonds for renovating the State Capitol over the next four years.  $60 million of that package would be reflected in this biennium’s spending, so the total House Republican general obligation bonding spend would be $340 million.

Let’s take a look at some of the key ways these different proposals are different.

Higher Education:  The main difference between the three proposals is Gov. Dayton’s $54 million plan to turn the  Old Main Utility building on the University of Minnesota campus into a new heat and electrical plant.  Dayton and Senate Republicans also provide significant funding to many projects in the MnSCU system that the House bill does not include.

Environment:  Again, Dayton and Senate Republicans share many of the same priorities here, providing funding for flood mitigation and invasive species control that does not exist in the House bill.  Dayton also provides more funding to the Pollution Control Agency than both of the Republican caucuses.

Military Affairs and Veterans:  Dayton and Senate Republicans fund two projects (totaling $44 million) not included in the House bill — nursing care bed replacement at the VA Hospital and expansions at Camp Ripley.

Administration and State Capitol:  The House’s $60 million proposal for Capitol renovations is the key delta between the three proposals.

Human Services and Corrections:  Dayton proposes significant spending in these categories that does not exist in either of the Republican bills.  Specifically, Dayton calls for expansion and remodeling of the St. Peter Security Hospital as well as expansion of the St. Cloud prison and construction of a fence at the Shakopee Women’s Correctional Facility.

Employment and Economic Development:  Dayton proposes a much broader list of local projects in this category, including renovations to Nicollet Mall and construction of a new ballpark for the St. Paul Saints.  Regional civic centers are an item to watch.  Dayton proposed expansion of renovation of facilities in Mankato, Rochester, and St. Cloud, while the Senate only included funding for Rochester and St. Cloud, while the House had none of these in their proposal.

Met Council:  Dayton proposed $25 million in funding for the SW Corridor Light Rail project, which did not make the cut of either of the Republican bills.

Bonding bills need to pass the Legislature by a 60% majority, so there is much work to be done before the end of the session to ensure passage.

Keeping the state on track

I wrote this column, which appeared in the February 9 editions of the Chanhassen Villager and the Chaska Herald.

Many observers hoped that this year’s legislative session would be quick and non-controversial. After all, the state has a projected budget surplus, meaning that there will be no repeat of last year’s lengthy budget standoff that resulted in a state government shutdown. Those observers felt that legislators – who are waiting anxiously for the new redistricting maps to be released later this month – would prefer to keep their head down, get some work done, and then focus on their re-election campaigns. 

Not only that, but they pointed to the election of Republican State Sen. David Senjem as the new majority leader as a sign that things would be less acrimonious. Senjem is a Senate veteran who was widely hailed as a conciliatory voice during his previous tenure as minority leader for Republicans. 

It took less than a day for those hopes to be shattered. Senjem and his leadership team (including Chanhassen State Sen. Julianne Ortman) delivered what was perceived by DFLers as a sharp partisan blow – forcing a cut in DFL staff budgets of over $400, 000 while not reducing Republican staff dollars at all in an effort to close a $2.5 million budget gap for the State Senate. This prompted a stinging, sharply worded rebuke from DFL minority leader Tom Bakk over both the cuts themselves and the process that led to them in the first place.

Ortman was also in the middle of the second major partisan controversy of the session – the party-line vote by Republican senators to remove former State Sen. Ellen Anderson as the chair of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

Anderson was a well-known environmental advocate when she was nominated by Gov. Mark Dayton last spring. However, her nearly oneyear long tenure on the PUC was not controversial. In 221 votes that Anderson participated in, the fivemember board (consisting of two DFLers and 3 Republicans), returned unanimous decisions 205 times. Of the remaining 16 votes, Anderson found herself in the minority only six times. 

Republicans, meanwhile, pointed to Anderson’s Senate record for evidence supporting their vote, noting her authorship of a bill that gave the state a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. They failed to note, however, that the bill passed on a bipartisan basis and was signed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. 

Dayton’s response to the Anderson “firing” was intense and personal. In his fiery response, Dayton targeted Ortman (who was just one of two Republican Senators to speak on the floor of the Senate in favor removing Anderson) with pointed rhetoric and some incorrect facts. 

There seemed to be little doubt in many minds – even though it went unsaid by those involved – that the Anderson decision was in part payback for DFL rejections of two Pawlenty appointees. 

So are we doomed to two more months of this nonsense? Let’s hope not – and we can do much as citizens to make sure that we get a session that is productive despite the partisan divisions that paralyze St. Paul far too often. 

First, we should insist that legislators get together quickly on the main deliverable of this year’s session:a bonding bill. Gov. Dayton has released a $775 million proposal that is a mix of infrastructure and support for local projects. Legislative Republicans have yet to release their planned bonding bill, only saying that do not plan on spending more than $500 million and they favor a higher infrastructure component than Dayton. 

Both parties have valid points here. Dayton has the size of the bill correct, as it equals the average bonding investment over the last decade. With interest rates low and the construction industry looking for a boost, this is exactly the right time to invest in our state’s longterm priorities. 

Meanwhile, Republicans are correct that there should be a stronger infrastructure component to the bill. We have crumbling roads and bridges around this state that should be addressed in a more significant fashion. Some local projects specified by Dayton, such as improvements to Nicollet Mall or building a new St. Paul Saints stadium, should wait. 

Second, we can demand that legislators seriously tackle governmental reform that has been left outstanding for too long. 

Included as part of this agenda would be developing a statute that would defuse much of the harm of failure to reach a budget agreement by the end of the fiscal year, freeing local governments and school districts from certain state mandates, consolidating backoffice functions and purchasing across state agencies to maximize efficiencies, and eliminating loopholes in transparency laws that allow legislators to shield some of their income from disclosure. 

Finally, we should expect that politicians on both sides of the aisle to grow up and stop the ridiculous tit-for-tat that passes for discourse in St. Paul. It doesn’t matter who did it first, who did it last, or who did it worst.

We should have higher standards for those who represent us. The decisions they make have real impacts on real people. If a politician is more interested in partisan games than doing the people’s business, it’s up to us to send them home in November.

Dayton unveils $775 million bonding package

Governor Mark Dayton today revealed his proposed bonding bill for the upcoming legislative session.  Dayton proposes $903 million in state funding, $775 million of which is general obligation bonding. The total plan includes an additional $575 million in federal or local matching funds, which would result in an estimated 21,000 new jobs.  Some of the proposed projects include:

  • $111 million in projects around the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, including a combined $44 million for expansions and renovations at North Hennepin Community College, South Central College, Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and Ridgewater College
  • $107 million in projects in the University of Minnesota system, most notably renovation of the Old Main Utility Building to function as a multi-utility power plant for the Twin Cities campus
  • $76 million in transportation projects including repairs to 82 bridges, expansion of transit in Greater Minnesota, and expansion of four maintenance facilities
  • $60 million in expansions and remodeling at civic centers in Rochester, Mankato, and St. Cloud
  • $42 million in clean drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects
  • $40 million in remodeling/expansion at the St. Peter Security Hospital
  • $33 million in expanded loans and financing for farmers
  • $29.9 million expansion to the St. Cloud prison
  • $28.5 million in maintenance and upgrades to the State Capitol and nearby office buildings
  • $27 million for a new St. Paul Saints ballpark
  • $26 million for a new state emergency operations center
  • $25 million for the Southwest Corridor Light Rail Transit line
  • $25 million for renovations of the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis

Republicans are critical of the package, although as of yet they have not released their own bonding proposals.

Our Infrastructure Crisis

Building America’s Future, a bipartisan group dedicated to infrastructure development, recently released a devastating report highlighting our failure to invest in our future by keeping our transportation infrastructure up to date.  I highly encourage you to read the entire document, but I wanted to highlight some of the key takeaways.

1.  Our transportation infrastructure is already overwhelmed, out-of-date, and losing ground to the rest of the world

The explosion of globalization has dramatically impacted our transportation infrastructure.  Our entire system — roads, rail, ports, airports — are working beyond their capacity and are over-congested.  Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate.

Congestion takes $200 billion out of our economy every year — that’s 1.6% of GDP.  Road congestion alone eats up 3.9 billion gallons of gasoline and 4.8 billion hours of lost time.    It’s common for freight trains entering or departing Chicago to spend more time waiting to be loaded/unloaded than in transit, even on trips to or from the West Coast.

Our air traffic control system is reliant on ground-based radar, instead of satellite monitoring.  Fully 37% of late arrivals can be attributed to by inefficiencies created by this system.  The impacts of this are felt most acutely in the New York metropolitan area, where the three airports suffer crippling rates of late arrivals.  For instance, in Newark, nearly one-third of all flights are delayed and the average late arrival is 73 minutes late.  Over half of all delays in New York’s airports can be blamed on the outdated air traffic control system.

When it comes to passenger rail, we are terribly behind other countries.  We have 0 miles of high-speed rail, defined as routes able to maintain an average of at least 155 miles per hour. (The Acela line in the Northeast has a top speed in that range, but only averages about 70 m.p.h.)  China, meanwhile, has 6,649 miles of high-speed rail with plans to nearly double that by the end of the decade.  Even developing countries are growing their systems — Saudi Arabia is constructing its first high-speed rail line, as are Brazil, Morocco, and Qatar.

Spain has nearly 2,400 miles of high-speed rail with plans to expand it to 6,200 miles by 2020.   Before the high-speed rail line between the two cities opened in 2008, Madrid to Barcelona was the most heavily traveled air route in Europe.  Today, a majority of that traffic has shifted to the train, which delivers a comparable travel time end-to-end (including security, baggage claim, etc.)

The port in Shanghai, China handles as much freight as the top seven U.S. ports combined.  Other countries are making investment in their facilities and surpassing us.  For instance, Canada has invested dramatically in its Prince Rupert facility north of Vancouver, linking it directly to a main CN rail line.  Port traffic to this facility has spiked since its expansion in 2007, while California ports have seen slow to no growth due to their congestion.

2.  The demands on our infrastructure are going to grow significantly in the coming years

Globalization isn’t going to stop — it’s only going to increase.  And all projections show that the demands on our infrastructure are going to go along with it.  Port volume at our largest facilities is expected to double by 2020.  Rail freight tonnage is expected to increase 88% by 2035.  And passenger miles drive are expected to increase 80% over the next 30 years.  Commercial air traffic is projected to be up 36% from 2006 levels in 2015.

3.  These issues have real impacts on our families

Most people don’t realize that transportation is the second-largest expense category for families in the United States, behind housing.  The average family spends nearly 18% of their income on transportation — more than food or health care.  Just like health care, though, Americans spend more on transportation than other countries.  Canadians spend 14% of their income on transportation, European Union citizens spend 13% of their income on transportation, and Japanese citizens spend 12.5% of their income on transportation.

The congestion in our transportation system adds costs in other ways, as well.  The lost time (4.8 billion hours a year) is significant.  Anyone who’s traveled for business knows how much productive time is lost at airports, with arrivals 90 minutes in advance of departure, extensive security retrofit into buildings not designed for such activity and often questionable places to plug in and get some work done.

Also, consider the expense that is added to the price of what you buy in your local store when the delivery truck is idling in traffic or the freight train is stuck at the depot in Chicago, or the cargo plane is forced to circle for an hour before landing.

These issues are more acute for low-income families, who spend up to 40% of their income on transportation.  Budget issues at the federal, state, and local levels have inhibited infrastructure construction and limited mass transit options for those in metropolitan areas.  We’ve seen that here in Minnesota, where our roads conditions have declined precipitously (from 8th in the country to 29th since 2002) and transit users have seen escalating bus fares.

What do we do?  The report has some good ideas, and I’ll share those and some of my own in an upcoming post.

Ernie Leidiger votes against creating 15,000 jobs

One of the conditions Governor Mark Dayton placed on his acceptance of the Republican budget offer was the addition of a bonding bill.  In a bonding bill, the state issues bonds (debt) that is used to build capital projects around the state. 

If you’re going to be issuing debt as a state, bonding for capital projects — infrastructure — is the best possible thing you can do with that debt.  And now, with the economic downturn, is an even better time to invest heavily in infrastructure.  It has the immediate impact of getting people back to work, and it creates lasting projects that can serve as the basis for future growth.  Additionally, you can build infrastructure more cheaply now than you can when times are good.  Why?  Because interest rates are low (so it costs you less to issue the bonds) and there’s a lot of excess capacity in the construction industry (so you can get a good deal on your bids for the projects).

Governor Dayton and the Republican majority agreed on a bonding package of $531 million.  It’s full of great projects, including:

  • $51 million for a new Physics and Nanotechnology building at the University of Minnesota
  • $48.7 million for new science facilities at St. Cloud State University, Metropolitan State University and Mesabi Range Community College
  • $16 million to renovate the Coon Rapids Dam, including construction of an invasive species barrier
  • $50 million for flood mitigation
  • $33 million in local bridge replacement
  • $22.5 million in Twin Cities and greater Minnesota transit

These are projects that are going to have beneficial long-term impacts on our state.  It’s hard to pinpoint the exact number of jobs that will be created by these investments, but using historical rates, a $531 million level of investment will result in about 15,000 new jobs.  15,000 new jobs would shave half a percent off of the state’s current unemployment rate, reducing it to 6%.

Who could be opposed to such a common-sense proposition?  Rep. Ernie Leidiger of Mayer, that’s who.  Leidiger was one of only 16 representatives to vote no on the bonding bill.  Most Republicans, including Chaska’s Rep. Joe Hoppe and Chanhassen’s Sen. Julianne Ortman, recognized the value of this bill and voted in favor of it.

Undoubtedly, Leidiger will cite the issuance of more debt as his rationale for opposing the bill.  But Leidiger — on the same day — voted for over $1.3 billion in debt that is really harmful to Minnesota’s economy.  Leidiger voted for a $700 million shift in K-12 education payments that puts the state IOU to its schools at $2 billion.  Leidiger also voted to issue bonds against future tobacco settlement revenues.  To raise $640 billion in revenue for this biennium, the state is going to have to spend between $800 and $900 million dollars.   These moves are debt of the worst kind — they hurt our schools and create holes in the state budget in future years without providing any of the long-term benefit of the infrastructure projects.

Leidiger’s “no” vote on the bonding bill is a vote against moving Minnesota forward, and is yet another demonstration of his willingness to blindly vote ideology over the real world needs of his constituents.

Comparisons of the first five budget bills

Details of the first five budget bills for the special session have been released.  These are the bills for Higher Education, Environment, Commerce & Energy, Jobs & Economic Development, Public Safety, and Transportation.  Combined, these areas only make up about 1/7 of the state’s General Fund spending.  What we see in these five bills is total spending levels split about halfway between Gov. Dayton’s March proposal and the bills passed by the GOP majority in May.

Higher education is still taking a pounding even with the budget compromise.  Current funding is $2.811 billion, meaning that there’s about $245 million in spending reductions — all coming directly out of the University of Minnesota ($126 million cut) and MnSCU ($129 million cut).  The only saving grace for higher ed funding is that financial aid programs for students are protected.  Other things of note include Twin Cities transit funding — the GOP had wanted that line item slashed by nearly $100 million to $20 million while Governor Mark Dayton had budgeted $129 million.  The two sides agreed to a figure of $78 million for the next biennium.

One graph that explains it all

It’s not always easy to explain the trends in the state budget and make it easily understandable.  As an absolute number, spending has been increasing in the state over the last decade.  Republicans play up that number — spending is out of control! — without providing the context.

What they don’t tell you is that the rate of spending hasn’t been increasing as fast as inflation and population growth — meaning that in fact, areas of state government are truly spending less today than they did before.  Overall, in fact, state government is spending nearly $900 per person less today than it did in 2002.  That’s why you’re seeing fewer government services AND higher property tax bills.

A graph of the trends in K-12 funding since 2003 (from Minnesota 2020) shows this rather clearly.

Inflation-adjusted per-pupil state spending on K-12 education has dropped 13.9% over the last eight years (the blue line on the graph).

The green line on the graph shows how local school districts have responded to the problem — by raising property tax levies to try to cover the shortfall.  In fact, local school district levies have increased 56.3% over that same time period.

The red line shows the net impact — in total, despite the local property tax increases, we’re spending 4% less per pupil today than we did in 2003.

This trend, sadly, is repeated all across our state government.  Cuts to higher education have led to tuition at our public colleges and universities that has doubled over the last decade (in absolute terms and increased by over 60% when adjusted for inflation).  Failure to fund transportation has caused our roads to decay and we’ve lagged the country in job growth, wage growth, and many other metrics.

Minnesota’s strong economic performance over the last three decades didn’t happen by accident.  We’re not guaranteed to stay there going forward.  We can’t assume that we can blithely cut away at the cornerstones of our success — education and infrastructure — and pretend that we’re not going feel the pain.  Republicans want us to abandon the principles that have made our state successful. 

We’ve spent the last decade playing the no new taxes/disinvestment game and the results are clear:  it hasn’t worked.

Let’s restore the principles that made our state so successful for so long.  That starts with a balanced solution to our current budget stalemate, including some new revenues to protect critical priorities.

Will the roads build themselves?

Minnesota has a serious transportation funding problem.  We’ve underfunded our roads for a generation, and we’re paying the price for it.  Since 2002, we’ve slipped to 29th in the amount of roads rated as substandard by the U.S. Department of Transportation.  MnDOT projects (based on current funding) that we will be about $2 billion short per year over the next 20 years to both maintain our current roads and keep up with population growth.  Increasing fuel economy in our automobiles also will decrease the utility of our gasoline tax — a Toyota Prius, for instance, uses half the fuel of the similarly sized Toyota Corolla, but the Prius weighs more and actually does more damage to the roads as a result. 

The costs of our failure to properly maintain our roads comes directly out of our pockets.  Not only do we spend more time idling in traffic, but the products that we buy in stores do the same.  Wasted fuel and wasted time add to the cost of every item in your local grocery, discount, or department store.  Good transportation infrastructure has always been a key differentiator for this state, and we are watching it literally crumble away underneath our feet (and tires).

Both parties have failed to adequately address the depth of the problem as it currently exists, and nobody has yet articulated a complete plan for the future.  To prepare for the future, though, MnDOT has been recruiting drivers to do a test of a potential means of data collection for a mileage tax.  There’s obvious downsides to a mileage tax — it’s harder to collect, and depending on the means of collection there are potential privacy concerns.  But at least someone is looking forward and looking for solutions.

Of course, that means there are people who are still looking backwards.  Included are many Republican members of the state legislature, including Carver County’s own Rep. Ernie Leidiger.  Leidiger has signed on as a co-sponsor of H.F. 1713, which would prohibit MnDOT from going forward with the mileage tax study.

A mileage tax may or may not be part of the solution going forward.  But if Leidiger and his colleagues want to slam the door on even looking into it, it’s then incumbent on them to develop their own solution for Minnesota’s transportation funding problem.  Given that the GOP caucuses in the Legislature opposed any new revenue for transportation before the 35W bridge collapse, opposed new revenue for transportation after the 35W bridge collapse, oppose Gov. Dayton’s bonding proposal which included some road projects, and still oppose any new revenue for transportation purposes, I’m not holding my breath but would really like to be pleasantly surprised.

If they can’t come up with a plan of their own, then the logical question is how they intend to keep our state competitive — do they expect the roads to build themselves?


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