Comprehensive transportation funding proposals have been off the table in the Minnesota Senate this session and there has been no movement to tackle the long-term funding needs for infrastructure projects across the state. The Senate Transportation Finance Committee has heard numerous bills to provide funding for infrastructure projects so far this session without an honest discussion about how to sustain the revenue to pay for them.

Senate Republicans have touted their commitment to roads and bridges with a $216 million general fund budget target but $121 million of the target is one-time money. Overdependence on one-time surpluses will not address our burgeoning transportation funding needs and the vast majority of transportation comes from dedicated revenue sources, like the gas tax and motor vehicle sales tax. Minnesota’s state highways and bridges face a $6 billion funding gap over the next 10 years, and estimates suggest a $18 billion gap just to maintain the current performance of our entire transportation system over the next 20 years.

Republicans have refused to acknowledge the need for additional revenue to fund our roads, bridges, and public transit systems, which will result in higher infrastructure costs in our future, increased congestion, and more roads that are less safe. 

Drivers’ license extensions to sunset

Minnesota driver’s license expirations were provided extensions by the Legislature last session due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the temporary closure of many offices. Drivers with expiration dates on their licenses from last March until the end of January have been allowed to continue to operate vehicles under their old licenses.

The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has determined the agency has the capacity to safely allow this extension provision to sunset at the end of March. According to Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS), driver’s license holders under this provision have until March 31, 2021 to renew their licenses that would have otherwise expired. Driver’s licenses that expire during the month of February also have until March 31 to renew, but licenses expiring in March or later must be renewed on time.

Third-party driving tests present safety concerns

A Republican bill heard in the Senate would allow private driving schools to administer Class D driver tests, which raises significant safety concerns. Minnesota ranks as the fifth lowest state for teen driver deaths per 10,000 licenses for drivers age 19 or younger. None of the five states with the lowest crash fatalities per 100 million miles use third parties for Class D skill tests. The Department of Public Safety Driver and Vehicle Services has a public interest in maintaining safety on Minnesota’s public roadways and does not support this legislation.

Transferring authority to for-profit entities would create a conflict of interest for these schools by allowing them to pass drivers that may not be ready to drive on public roadways. Deferring public safety to private entities is not the solution we need to ensure driver’s license applicants receive timely and comprehensive road exams and that Minnesota drivers are adequately trained to maintain safety on our roadways. (SF 276)

Republicans propose tripling electric vehicle taxes

A bill was heard in the Senate Transportation Committee to triple the fee already paid by all-electric vehicle owners for registration renewal, more commonly known as vehicle tabs. The annual fee would be increased from $75 per year to $229. It also imposes a new $114.50 registration surcharge on hybrid vehicles. All funds would be distributed into the highway user tax distribution fund (HUTDF) for road construction and maintenance.

An all-electric vehicle registration surcharge was imposed in January 2018 to require electric vehicle owners to contribute to road maintenance, since these vehicles are not paying into the HUTDF through the gas tax. Since all-electric vehicles don’t pay a gas tax, there may be some justification in requiring drivers to help pay for a portion of road maintenance expenses. However, more than tripling the surcharge punishes drivers for owning an electric vehicle and ignores their contributions to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Mandating all-electric vehicle owners and hybrid vehicle owners to pay more than their fair share for road maintenance is bad public policy and disincentivizes the purchase of energy efficient vehicles. (SF 1086)

Online-only driver’s education courses proposed

A bill was heard and laid over in the Transportation Finance Committee that would authorize online-only driver education programs through private companies for applicants under 18 years old seeking to receive a driver instruction permit. Online programs would need approval from the commissioner of public safety and behind-the-wheel hours would still be required in addition to the online coursework.

Online programs would need to provide customer support through a telephone number, store course content and student data on a secure server, and update course content uniformly statewide. The curriculum would need to ensure the identity of the student taking the course, measure the amount of time the student spends on each course section, use a pool of rotating quiz questions, and allow students to measure their performance.

Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) is continuing to work with the author of this legislation to remain neutral on the bill. The agency requests the requirements for online driver’s education match that of in-person driver’s education to maintain the high standards for course completion. The department will also need adequate funding for a staff position to manage and audit online driver’s education programs. (SF 255)

Driver’s License for All kicks off once more in a new year
The 2021 Driver’s License for All kickoff featured testimony from Minnesotans about the hardships of living life without access to a driver’s license. From being unable to access medical appointments to risking jail, deportation, or separation from loved ones, group members shared the experience of undocumented Minnesotans without a driver’s license across the state.

This meeting comes in hopes that the Minnesota Senate will pass legislation allowing undocumented Minnesotans to acquire a state driver’s license and car insurance. The policy, passed previously in a DFL-controlled Senate and years later by a DFL-controlled House, will be reconsidered by the 2021 Minnesota Senate.

Emphasis was placed on the importance of this bill during the current COVID-19 public health crisis. More than two thirds of undocumented immigrants in Minnesota are essential workers who have been forced to continue attending their jobs during the pandemic. Without access to a driver’s license, those who fear being exposed to others through public transportation or carpooling are left to brave the elements on foot to get to work.

Support for this bill has been provided from many organizations across different fields, including the Minnesota Catholic Church, law enforcement, and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Supporters hope that bipartisanship in the Senate will allow this bill to be passed this year. (SF 399)