There are promises, and there are political promises, which, lacking the maintenance of sincerity, crumble faster than a rural road in a Minnesota winter. Seems the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is busy sanding off the truth around the promises it made in exchange for support of the $6.6 billion tax increase, nee “transportation bill,” railroaded over Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto.

In an interview with the nonpartisan Civic Caucus, Rep. Bernie Lieder, chief architect of the legislation, made a number of hedging-your-bets statements indicative of someone who may have overpromised and risks under-delivering. The promise the new metro area sales tax would help build transit and relieve traffic congestion? Apparently not the attractive package we thought. That promise of property tax relief? Well, that might have been a little padded, as well.

In public, the DFL is praising business groups that supported the tax increase. It might be wise, however, for those “courageous” defectors to take their kudos as faint praise and their DFL assurances with a grain of salt. Defection is often publically praised but seldom is it privately respected.

As one DFL Iron Ranger noted to a GOP colleague, “Labor would never (expletive) us the way the chamber (expletived) you” — a reference to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce support for a gas tax increase. Of course, his comment doesn’t mean the DFL is not ready to (expletive) business groups that supported the bill.

According to the Pioneer Press, the Minnesota Trucking Association supported the transportation bill after “being assured the measure wouldn’t usher in toll roads.” Depends on what your definition of the words “ushered in” is. As Lieder parsed it to the Civic Caucus, the prohibition on toll roads in the legislation applies only to existing freeway lanes, not to new lanes in the future. That door to toll lanes is still open. The powerful Lieder personally favors toll roads and would favor that the new Stillwater Bridge be a toll road.

And the promise that a metro sales tax would provide funding for new transit projects? Well, that isn’t exactly how it’s going to work, either.

In the Civic Caucus interview, Lieder said the first call for sales tax revenue would likely be for transit operating subsidies. In other words, the metro sales tax will simply go to camouflage the problem we LRT critics have harped on all along: Light-rail operation is so heavily subsidized it is economically unsustainable — eventually taxpayers must bend over and pick up the tab — it’s up the ante time.

Oh, yeah — that property tax relief? If new sales tax money falls short of meeting required subsidies for transit? Lieder warned that counties should look to property taxes to make up any additional transit operating shortfalls and not come to the state.

By the way, an unusual county-led joint powers board will decide where the new metro sales tax money is spent. Counties, Lieder said, have concerns about the power and influence of the Metropolitan Council (ya think?). And should the Met Council and this new layer of government disagree on transit spending? Well, one or the other (or both) will likely be back at the Legislature looking for more new money.

That brings us to earmarks. Everyone deplores earmarks. Just not enough to resist circumventing statute to draft funding that comes “dangerously close” to earmarks. Some project criteria in the legislation are so detailed, they essentially designate specific projects. Included in that category are earmarks for the Lafayette and Hastings bridges and also substantial monies for the districts of Republicans Rod Hamilton and Neil Peterson, who defected to support the tax increase and the override.

But, Lieder explained to the Civic Caucus, with more money for road and bridge work, there is no longer a need for legislators to earmark transportation projects for their districts. If you believe that, well, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you — except the DFL already did that, didn’t it?
Call it “the largest tax increase in modern Minnesota history” as the GOP does or cloak it as a “Transportation Bill” as the DFL does, the legislation passed over the governor’s veto is but a packet of promises that will be breached as soon as it’s politically expedient. Six-plus billion dollars is a lot to spend for entertainment value, but were it not for the soap-opera duplicity of the daytime drama at the Capitol, we’d get very little else from this “historic” legislation.

Craig Westover is a contributing columnist to the Pioneer Press Opinion page and a senior policy fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute (http://www.mnfreemarketinstitute.com/).

“Drama, promises and DFL duplicity” originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Friday, March 7, 2008