Road tolls can cost the state dearly

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Finance Minister Siv Jensen’s Progress Party reignited the Norwegian government’s internal battle over bompenger (road tolls) on Sunday. The ongoing battle is still threatening to unravel Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative coalition, as confusion and uncertainty reign just weeks before local elections.

Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, shown here after Sunday’s press conference, seems keen to blame the Liberals if the government coalition falls apart. PHOTO: Fremskrittspartiet/Bjørn Inge Bergestuen

It’s the local governments around Norway that actually set road tolls in their own areas. The extent of toll plazas and the level of the tolls themselves, however, are directly linked to how much (or how little) funding the local governments get from the state budget.

Public outcry over more toll plazas and much higher tolls in cities like Bergen, Stavanger and not least Oslo has posed huge challenges for politicians at both the local and state levels. They typically blame each other, but now the political parties themselves are all threatened by the new road toll protest parties that have popped up and seem to be luring voters away, especially from the Progress and Liberal parties.

They’re fighting back, in an effort to regain voter support heading into the September 9 election. Time is especially running out for the Progress Party to show that it’s still firmly opposed to road tolls and shouldn’t be blamed for how they’re much more extensive and costly now than when Progress first won state government power six years ago.

It was at this national meeting of the Progress Party in May that leader Siv Jensen and her deputy leaders Terje Søviknes (left) and Sylvi Listhaug were confronted with a grass roots revolt over road tolls. That’s forced Progress’ leadership into all but threatening to bring down the government if road tolls aren’t lowered. PHOTO: Fremskrittspartiet

That’s what motivated Jensen to interrupt the ongoing election campaign and call in her party’s national board for an extraordinary meeting on Sunday. She and her deputy leaders Sylvi Listhaug and Terje Søviknes declared when it was over that the party had approved what Jensen described as a new road toll compromise allegedly agreed among the four government parties, which include Progress, Solberg’s Conservatives, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals.

The problem is that the Liberals deny there’s any agreement, only a draft proposal for some road toll reforms that still needs further negotiation. Jensen and Listhaug claim the negotiating, which has been going on since June to avert a government crisis, is over. “We’re not going into new negotiations,” declared Listhaug at a press conference late Sunday afternoon, prompting Norwegian media to widely report that Progress was posing an ultimatum in the road toll conflict. Jensen denies that, but both she and Listhaug gave the impression that the Conservatives and Christian Democrats had accepted a compromise to cut road toll expense for motorists, without offering any details of what any such compromise contains.

“Now it’s in reality up to the Liberals to clarify their position on the negotiated result,” Jensen said. “If the Liberals don’t want to go along with it, I think it’s up to the prime minister to handle this further.”

The mood among the Norwegian government’s four party leaders seemed friendly indeed at this meeting earlier this month, especially between Progess leader Siv Jensen (second from left) and Liberals leader Trine Skei Grande (second from right). They’re deeply divided, however, on the road toll issue. At far left, Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservatives, with Kjell Ingolf Ropstad of the Christian Democrats at far right. PHOTO: Fremskrittspartiet

With the Liberals denying there’s any “negotiated result,” they made it clear they won’t go along with what Progress’ national board approved on Sunday. “The Progress Party can’t just have an agreement with itself,” the Liberal’s deputy leader Ola Elvestuen, who also serves as Norway’s climate and environment minister, told newspaper Aftenposten. He needs to convince voters that both his party and the government itself are committed to reducing carbon emissions through less use of private cars and more funding for public transport, with road tolls as a tool for doing so.

“We are four parties in the government,” Elvestuen noted. He also stressed that road tolls were part of the government’s platform agreed in January, adding that the Liberals “are ready for new discussions on road tolls.”

With Progress maintaining that the time for “new discussions” is over, Prime Minister Solberg is left to find a means of once again ironing out differences among her quarrelsome coalition partners.

“We’re working further on these qustions, based on feedback from the parties,” Solberg told TV2 Sunday night. She downplayed criticism over what some commentators call a lack of control within the government and deepening splits among its party members. She’s keen to ward off any crisis that will topple her government, which she’s managed to keep intact and expand.

Tax deductions, Oil Fund money…
Any compromise that will cut road tolls would have to be based on more funding for road- and public transport improvements from the state. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has reported that motorists may find themselves able to deduct at least a share of road toll expenses from their income taxes, while others have called for more direct funding allocations, even by tapping Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund known as the Oil Fund. That seems unlikely, though, since the Oil Fund is supposed to finance pensions for future generations and the government has already been criticized for using “too much” oil money.

“The state’s contribution (towards cutting the need for road tolls) will increase,” Jensen insisted, without going into any detail. “There will be more money on the table from the state’s side.” She claimed the disputed “agreement” among the four parties would “cut road tolls and invest in public transport.” Her deputy leader Søviknes told newspaper Aftenposten it would amount to “more than a billion” kroner being cut from the road toll revenues in next year’s state budget.

Solberg is under deadline pressure to resolve the heated road toll conflict, as she faces what should be a conclusive meeting on next year’s state budget late next week along with the local elections on September 9. Both the Progress Party and the Liberals have painted themselves into a corner and either or both may withdraw from the government coalition if they fail to prevail. That would leave Solberg with a highly vulnerable minority government, subject to losing a vote of confidence in Parliament on any number of issues in the months ahead.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund