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Off the Record: The man in the middle

New Ulm area state representatives have a penchant for being in the middle of things in the Legislature. Twenty-five years ago, Terry Dempsey was serving in the Legislature, and was the House Minority Leader from 1991 to 1992. He got along well enough with Gov. Arne Carlson (something not a lot of Republicans managed to do) to get appointed as a district judge.

One Dempsey’s successors, Brad Finstad, also managed to get in the middle of the action while he was in office. He rose to assistant minority leader, and is best remembered for his sponsorship of the Twins stadium bill. He was the go-to guy who explained and defended the bill (opposed by a lot of people in his own party), shepherding it through committee hearings and getting the Legislature to finally approve the bill that never got anywhere in the decade before.

Now Paul Torkelson is among the group at the top of the Republican House caucus. Representing the New Ulm area from his Hanksa home, Torkelson has been in the middle of some major battles.

Last year, as chairman of the House Capital Investment Committee, Torkelson worked diligently on the state bonding bill that almost — ALMOST — got approved at the end of the session. It was a close one, sidetracked at literally 11th hour by a Senate attempt to add transit project funding that forced delays as the clock ticked away.

This year Torkelson is head of the House Transportation Finance Committee, which puts him in charge of the Republicans’ efforts to pass a transportation bill that will spend $6 billion more over the next ten years — without raising the gas tax.

Personally, I think that would be a pretty good trick the state might not be able to pull off. I know the Republicans don’t want to raise taxes now when we have a $1.6 billion surplus. They think the extra spending can be financed with surplus funds, transferring some auto related sales tax revenue to roads, and laying a $75 to $85 surcharge on electric cars which don’t use gasoline and therefore don’t contribute to road upkeep through the gas tax.

I like that last idea, but frankly, relying on a budget surplus over the next ten years is pretty risky business. I have seen budget surpluses give way to deficits over the years, and Gov. Mark Dayton is right, one of the first things to be hit is transportation funding. That’s how we got in the position we’re in today with highway and bridge funding. When money gets tight, transportation projects tend to get put off until later, a process that only increases the cost and complexity of the repairs later.

Anyway, Rep. Torkelson is in the middle of the process, carrying on a tradition of leadership from state representatives in our area. I wish him luck. I think he might need it.

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