The House transportation package raises the state's gas tax by 10 cents over the next two years to pay for road and transit projects. It would also increase license tab fees on new vehicle purchases and allow counties to increase vehicle surcharges and sales taxes to pay for transportation projects.
Rep. Bernie Lieder , DFL-Crookston, says the plan would pump another $7.6 billion into road and transit projects over the next 10 years. He says there's no question state residents and businesses want transportation improvements.
"I have never seen in all of the years that I have dealing with transportation this support. When you get industries that have never supported it before and they're telling you 'We need something.' There's something wrong," Lieder said.
But critics say both the bill and the debate in a rare Saturday session are a waste of time.
Rep. Paul Kohls, R-Victoria, said Gov. Pawlenty has repeatedly said he would veto any bill that includes a gas tax, just like he did two years ago. Kohls said he would prefer to see lawmakers work on a bill that Gov. Pawlenty would accept.
"Let's work with Governor Pawlenty. Let's not play gotcha politics. Let's not send Governor Pawlenty a bill that we absolutely know he is going to veto. What a waste of our time. What an absolute waste of our time," Kohls said.
Other critics complained that the tax increases would unfairly affect the poor. Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, says the proposal averages out to a $550 a year cost increase for a family of four.
"This gas tax will take away money at a greater percentage from some of the poorest people in the state. Shame on anyone who would do that. Where's your conscience?" Buesgens said.
Supporters of the bill called the gas tax a "user fee" since those who drive more will pay more. They also argue that Minnesota's gas tax has not kept pace with inflation, because lawmakers haven't boosted the tax since 1988. Supporters also say commuters are already paying a heavy cost since traffic gridlock is causing delays.
DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich also downplayed the impact of the tax increase on household finances. He says Wisconsin's gas tax is higher but the price of gas isn't much different.
"When they put gas in their tank over there, 12 cents more goes into their transportation system than we do," Sertich said. "I checked the price of gas in Hudson, Wisconsin and checked the price of gas in Lakeland, Minnesota. Members, there was a one-cent difference. The market is going to dictate how much we pay for gas."
The House vote comes just one day after the Senate voted for a much larger transportation funding package. The two bodies now have to reconcile their differences in a conference committee. The key question is whether the committee can craft a proposal that will either be acceptable to the governor or have enough support to override his veto.
Both chambers are short of the votes needed to override. The Senate needs three more votes. The House needs seven. But when it comes to an override vote, House leaders will likely lose some of the five Republicans who voted for the gax tax increase.
Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, says he hopes the governor, the House and the Senate will reach some sort of agreement in conference committee.
"We have a lot of potential here for good things to happen, but they have to recognize that just because a bill goes off of the House with significant support that they can do whatever they want and the governor is a nonplayer. That's not the way it's going to happen," he said.
Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, says the governor is encouraging the House and Senate to get the bill to his desk as quickly as possible if they insist on raising the gas tax. He says the governor only supports a gas tax increase if it's approved by the voters.
"What the governor has said for the last two or three years is 'if the Democrats are so interested in passing a gas tax, they should have the courage of their convictions and put it on the ballot,'" the spokesman said.
McLung says the governor is proposing a transportation package that relies on long-term borrowing to fund transportation projects. That proposal is unacceptable to Senate Transportation Chair Steve Murphy of Red Wing.
"It's foolish for the state of Minnesota to go down that road," Murphy said. "We did it once and we're trying to clip that cord on his addiction to debt."
Murphy says he hopes the conference committee can reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills by mid April.