The Road to Perdition

The governor wants to spend billions on roads without raising your taxes. Think there might be a catch?

In the broader scheme of the state budget, however, the MVST monies are just slow drops in the bucket for a transportation system desperately in need of both long-term fixes and quick patching. To get the ball rolling, Pawlenty is also proposing to borrow $2.5 billion for road projects over the next four years and pay off the bonds with future MVST revenues.

This is a similar scheme to the $800 million in highway and bridge money the governor borrowed three years ago, currently being paid off in 20-year bonds. That earlier plan also took tens of millions of federal dollars that were supposed to be earmarked for highway maintenance and used it for bond payments.

"The governor hammered through a plan that doesn't pay for itself," says state Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), "and so now for the first time in the history of the state, the Department of Transportation is broke. What that means is if someone drives through a guard rail it is not going to be replaced very soon. If someone breaks an axle on a pothole, it is not going to be filled very soon.

A fresh legislative session means fresh fiscal bait-and-switch moves from Tim Pawlenty
Craig Lassig
A fresh legislative session means fresh fiscal bait-and-switch moves from Tim Pawlenty

"Now the governor wants to borrow $2.5 billion, and it will cost $3.84 billion to pay off those bonds. That's more smoke and mirrors, more money in interest charges instead of potholes. Those 20-year bonds won't be retired for 32 years. Our folks didn't do that to us, but that is the debt we will be leaving our children. They talk about not raising taxes, but that doesn't stop these Republicans from spending money faster than a boatload of drunken Marines."

"There is no mystery that [the Pawlenty administration] is turning to debt service to fund the projects on the table now," says Curt Johnson, who served as chief of staff to Gov. Arne Carlson and worked for the Itasca Project in developing its transportation strategy. "It's a matter of keeping the lights on. They are postponing projects and moving priorities because they have starved the revenue. Everybody I talk to says, Yeah, we need to pass this amendment, and we should. But we need to realize that, at most, it is a 15 percent down payment on the problem, and it opens up a hole in the general fund budget on the other side.

"If we are going to close the investment gap in our road system," Johnson continues, "we are going to have to ask people who benefit from the system to pay a little more to make it better. I just find the politics of the gas tax to be ridiculous. The governor says people can't stand a 10-cent increase. Good God, over the last year or so we have seen the price at the pump rise by more than that between breakfast and lunch. And we raise an eyebrow and grumble a little and go on.

"All you have to do is look around the country. Charlotte, Phoenix, Dallas, Salt Lake City all have big study groups heavily involved with big business coalitions, and all have come to the same conclusion: Use a small piece, maybe up to a penny, of the general sales tax to do some serious transit planning and construction. These are not wide-eyed liberal places. These are very conservative, coldly calculating places that want to do something meaningful to solve the problem."

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