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How State Elections Could Affect Road Funding

The victors in down-ballot races could determine what approaches states take toward fixing up rundown roads and infrastructure in the years to come.

A highway in Colorado.
(FlickrCC/Bradley Gordon)
Transportation may not generate the most salacious headlines this campaign season, but at a time when more states are raising gas taxes and finding other ways to fix up their roads and bridges, the fate of infrastructure improvement plans in several states is riding on voter decisions in November.

Consider Minnesota, where both chambers of the state legislature happen to be among the most competitive bodies in the country this fall. Democrats are just seven seats short of a majority in the House, while Republicans only need six more Senate seats to control the upper chamber.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the state agree on the need to find more money for road improvements and other infrastructure upgrades. But the two parties don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to how to raise the money for those transportation projects.

Democrats favor raising the gas tax by 10 to 16 cents and increasing vehicle registration fees. Republicans prefer to use revenue from the state’s surplus and to repurpose existing state revenues for infrastructure needs.

Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, used the transportation stalemate as one example of why voters should give his party sole control of the legislature.

“The past year has shown us that divided government badly serves the best interests of the people of Minnesota,” he said.

While other issues -- including jobs, crime rates and social justice -- have dominated state races this year, transportation and infrastructure funding will undoubtedly be on lawmakers' agendas in Minnesota and across the country. The chances of big transportation packages passing should go up next year regardless of who wins, because it won't be a major election year. Lawmakers tend to pass more ambitious legislation in nonelection years, and that’s especially true for transportation measures that require tax increases.

In 2015, for example, eight states raised their gas taxes while two others adjusted theirs to respond to falling fuel prices. The list included deep-red states such as Idaho and Utah, indicating that gas taxes can still get Republican support.

But even on less controversial transportation measures, such as bond packages, November’s elections could lead to big policy changes.

Take the close race to succeed Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who is running for vice president rather than seeking another term. In that race, former Democratic House Speaker John Gregg wants to issue $3 billion in bonds to boost transportation and set up a state infrastructure bank for local governments. 

“We have so many opportunities that we are missing,” Gregg told the Northwest Indiana Times. “While interest rates are so low, let's utilize some of the existing dollars the state has squirreled away to not only repair roads and bridges, but to make strategic investments that will spur business growth and improve the quality of life in communities statewide.”

Gregg's Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, has mentioned big-ticket items he wants the state to fund, but he hasn’t identified yet how he would pay for them. Holcomb says he would build a fourth port on the Ohio River, add a bridge over the river in Evansville and add a second set of tracks to the South Shore Line to Chicago to ease congestion on the route.

Similarly, the next governor of Missouri will also have to wrestle with demands for more road funding.

Outgoing Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, unsuccessfully pushed for a gas tax hike there last year. The governor’s push came after voters defeated a proposal to raise the state’s sales tax for transportation in 2014. The Missouri Department of Transportation faces chronic budget shortfalls, and Interstate 70, a key truck route between St. Louis and Kansas City, needs major repairs. But the state hasn’t raised its gas tax since 1992.

In the campaign, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Koster, now the state’s attorney general, said Missouri needs between $200 million and $500 million in new transportation money. But Koster hasn’t said where he’d find funding.

For his part, Republican nominee Eric Greitens said he wants to commission a “full study” of Missouri’s transportation funding. Greitens also pointed to a new bonding bill passed by South Carolina in June as a potential model for the state.

The upcoming elections could shift the legislative debate over transportation in Colorado, where Republicans control the Senate with a razor thin 18-17 majority and Democrats have the House. Lawmakers have been sparring over a bonding proposal for $3.5 billion over the next two decades to pay for 42 highway projects. Democrats recently blocked the measure, because they said the GOP proposal would have prioritized highway projects over other state obligations.

A partisan swing in the Michigan House could impact the Michigan Department of Transportation’s plans to rewrite the state’s transportation funding formulas, too. Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has called for an overhaul of those allocations since he took office in 2011 but has gained little traction.

Republicans currently control the House by a 62-45 margin, and both parties consider the chamber in play this year. But the House’s top Democrat suggested a change in party control could remove one roadblock in finding money to pay for road improvements. 

“If you look at the failure of the state to fix the roads, we have been much more aligned on those issues with the governor and with Senate Republicans than the House Republicans have been,” House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel told Crain’s Detroit. A spokesman for House Republicans said it was too early to say which issues might come up in next year’s session.

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