- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 7, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Gov. Mark Dayton pleaded Wednesday with Minnesota business leaders to help him build support for a transportation funding plan with real money, not “phony solutions.”

Dayton pitched a skittish state Chamber of Commerce on transportation tax hikes that he said will generate the billions needed to deal with congestion, deteriorating infrastructure and planned expansions. The chamber has recommended non-tax alternatives - drawing money from the general treasury or squeezing the existing transportation budget - for covering the funding gap.

The Democratic governor addressed more than 1,000 people at the annual chamber dinner that coincides with the Legislature’s start. He spent nearly the entire 15-minute speech framing the problem and explaining a not-yet finalized plan. Dayton reiterated his intent to seek a new tax on gasoline, higher vehicle licensing fees and metropolitan-area sales tax increases for transit. He said temporary patches won’t do.

“There is no easy solution. There are only real solutions and phony solutions,” Dayton said. “I’ve said when you campaign for office you deal with rhetoric. However, when you serve in office you deal in reality.”

By various estimates, Minnesota is between $2 billion and $6 billion short for transportation over the next decade.

Dayton bemoaned what he said was a prolonged avoidance of tackling the issue for the sake of political expedience. The last large-scale transportation plan passed in 2008 when Republicans joined Democrats in overriding a veto by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The gas tax gradually rose from 20 cents per gallon at the time to 28.5 cents now. Dayton said if it had kept up with inflation it would be at 36 cents.

The sales tax Dayton envisions would increase fuel costs by at least 12 cents per gallon, based on recent gas prices.

Dayton said he’s open to alternatives, including a chamber plan to capture property value increases from road improvements to pay down the construction debt.

The transportation debate will burn hot in the five-month session. Dayton has an ally in the Democratic-led Senate but needs to strike a compromise with a GOP-controlled House that has downplayed the need for any new taxes.

In a panel discussion later, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said lawmakers should consider tapping the $1 billion projected surplus to infuse money into the system for now.

“We may not be able to solve this on a long-term basis, but we have got some money on the bottom line,” Daudt said, suggesting a $500 million splurge. “That’s the thing we should look at before we go right back to the cash register and hurt Minnesota families and hurt your businesses.”

Dayton’s speech elicited little reaction from the crowd. He was interrupted with applause when he said he would ask his Transportation Department to better synchronize traffic lights to keep people moving and reduce road rage.

“I finally got to something you like,” Dayton said.

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