NORTH MANKATO — Area lawmakers started a legislative panel Wednesday morning talking about compromise, but local leaders, business owners and residents wanted to hear more about the Minnesota Legislature's lack of progress on transportation and infrastructure.
Those two topics took up the majority of the discussion at a Greater Mankato Growth-sponsored event inside South Central College.
Despite passing a $6.7 billion bill to address Minnesota's transportation budget over the next two years, there was no new transportation funding to address an increasing backlog of road and bridge projects throughout the state.
Democrats and Republicans have fought for the past few years over the best way to increase transportation funding, with DFLers supporting a gas tax increase and Republicans supporting shifting existing motor vehicle-related taxes and fees from the general fund.
Republicans adamantly opposed Gov. Tim Walz's 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase proposal this year, which the governor was ultimately forced to abandon in favor of keeping a 1.8 percent health care provider tax in place to keep low-income residents' health care programs in place.
Sen. Rich Draheim told residents that Republicans believe the tax is regressive on lower-income residents, especially for people who struggle to get by in south-central Minnesota.
"We have a lot of people in my district that have two jobs that have to drive a half an hour to get groceries or go to the doctor," he said. "It's really hard on them."
The Madison Lake Republican also noted transportation will have to fight with burgeoning health care costs over the next few years. Draheim, who serves on the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, said the state's health and human services budget is projected to double in size by 2026.
Area DFLers say the state needs to prioritize getting new dedicated transportation funding without taking away from other general fund priorities such as education or health and human services.
"What we came up with is no long-term stable funding for our roads and bridges," said Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato. "I think I'm going to ask Minnesotans, 'Are you OK with us having a below-average transportation system?'"
Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, noted he was the only House Democrat to vote against this year's transportation bill because it didn't contain funding to expand the last two-lane section of Highway 14 from Nicollet to New Ulm. Area leaders have lobbied for a four-lane Highway 14 from New Ulm to Rochester for more than 50 years.
Brand proposed $85 million for the project this session. He reiterated his concerns that residents face a higher accident rate than other similar roads due in part to how many semi-trucks travel to and from New Ulm daily.
"The people that drive on that road are put in danger needlessly," he said.
Jack Considine, the Democrat who represents Mankato and nearby areas, said the Legislature's deadlock on an infrastructure bill this year was especially frustrating. Though Walz and House and Senate leaders agreed to a $500 million public works bill, lawmakers couldn't agree on projects in time for a bill to pass with its required three-fifths majority.
Considine noted Minnesota faces more than $70 billion in identified infrastructure needs, including transportation and water infrastructure, over the next 20 years according to a Free Press analysis. Lawmakers would have needed to pass a $4.1 billion infrastructure bill to address most of Minnesota's identified needs, according to state and federal estimates.
"There has to be a recognition that we need to do bonding," Considine said.
Draheim pointed out lawmakers typically do large-scale infrastructure bills, also called bonding bills because the state borrows money to fund projects, on even-numbered years. Lawmakers also passed a $60 million housing infrastructure bill this year.
Considine, who serves on the House Capital Investment Committee and reviews infrastructure proposals each year, said lawmakers have done bonding bills for eight out of the past 10 years. He's in favor of splitting bonding bills by addressing asset preservation one year and prioritized projects the next.
Other residents discussed issues ranging from health care solutions to the Mankato-based Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota. Frentz said he was frustrated the museum's funding request was left out of the E-12 education budget bill when other regional museums in Duluth and St. Paul were included.
"There's no good reason for one community's museum to be included in the E-12 bill and for another community is not, never mind the fact that our museum kicks ass," Frentz said.