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Bus strike highlights debate over transit at the Capitol
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Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, is critical of Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans for proposing cuts to transit funding in the next state budget. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
While the bus strike may soon be over, the debate over transit funding is heating up at the Capitol. Gov, Pawlenty and House Republicans have proposed cutting the Metro Transit budget, while Senate Democrats want to increase transit funding. Transit advocates say Metro Transit will need more money to regain riders after the strike, and further cuts will cripple the agency.

St. Paul, Minn. — Metro Transit -- like nearly every other agency that receives state funding -- took a hit in last year's multi-billion dollar budget fix. Legislators cut its budget by $18 million over two years.

We had to raise fares last year, we had to cut back routes, and while I don't anticipate needing to do that in the near future, that's a concern for everyone.
- Met Council chairman Peter Bell

This year, Gov. Pawlenty proposed another 3 percent budget cut, and House Republicans went even further. The transportation bill they passed last week would freeze the amount of motor vehicle sales tax money Metro Transit would receive for the next four years.

"We have both a freeze and a cut," says Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. He says the House bill goes in the wrong direction, at a time when Metro Transit needs more money.

"We have a growing region, we have a region that needs to remain competitive," says Hornstein. "We have people that rely on transit for their commute, people rely on transit because they don't have other means of transportation, it's a whole broad diverse group."

House Republican leaders say they don't dispute the need for transit, particularly for seniors and people with disabilities. But they say as long as transit relies on money from the state's general fund, it will face budget cuts when the state's budget is tight.

Metro Transit currently gets about one-third of its $220 million annual budget from the state's general fund, one-third from riders and one-third from a portion of the motor vehicle sales tax.

The chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee, Rep. Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester, says the state needs to find a different way to fund transit.

"I even proposed a couple of weeks ago to up the statewide business property tax to pay for transit," Kuisle says. "I know that's going to be torpedoed and shot up, but some way we have to work with the business communities and others trying to find a solution to this. And it's not going to be a gas tax increase, because we don't have enough for roads."

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Image Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson

Some DFL lawmakers have proposed a half-cent sales tax increase in the metropolitan area to fund roads and transit.

Met Council chairman Peter Bell says he's not sure what the best approach is, but he supports a dedicated funding source for transit. He says the last round of budget cuts was difficult for Metro Transit.

"We had to raise fares last year, we had to cut back routes, and while I don't anticipate needing to do that in the near future, that's a concern for everyone," says Bell.

Bell says Metro Transit should be able to absorb the 3 percent budget cut proposed by the governor. But Bell says he doesn't support the House transportation bill, which would also include a funding freeze.

The budget bill that passed the Senate would increase funding for both Metro Transit and rural transit by about $10 million. DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says Senate Democrats are committed to transit funding.

"We need a balanced approach to roads and freeways and commuter rail and buses, in a state that's growing in population," Johnson says. "It's a state growing in enterprise and business -- and you need all of it. You need rural and you need Metro Transit."

But Senate Democrats will be outnumbered in budget talks by a Republican governor and Republican-controlled House. Republicans say transit cuts are likely to be part of the final budget fix to erase a projected $160 million deficit.

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