The word of the day in the transportation conference committee was "compromise." Several members of the committee, including a few Republicans, used the word liberally when it came to the gas tax.
The plan that emerged would increase the gas tax by a nickel a gallon starting September 1. Both chambers approved a dime-a-gallon hike earlier this session.
Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, says the nickel cut was aimed at those who thought a 10-cent increase was too rich.
"It's a gigantic compromise. We're really giving a lot and I just want to be on record saying a nickel is not enough but I'll be voting for it," she said.
Minnesota has not increased the 20-cent-a-gallon gas tax since 1988. Another five cents would inject an additional $160 million a year into the budget for transportation projects. The bill also increases license tab fees on new vehicles. And the seven Metro area counties would get the authority to impose a half-cent sales tax to pay for road and transit projects.
In addition to the gas tax, the plan would also phase in a surcharge on all motor fuels, including gasoline, of up to two-and-a-half cents a gallon. That money would help repay bonds that finance road construction. In total, the package would generate about $700 million a year for roads and transit projects.
Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, who co-chairs the transportation conference committee, says he hopes the package is acceptable to Gov. Pawlenty. If not, he hopes it gets the 90 votes needed to override a veto.
"We have definitely Republicans and we're working on Republicans," he said. "We're very close. They haven't seen this bill. We think if they see this bill, we're definitely going to get a lot of votes. There's no doubt about that."
There also is no doubt he bill will be vetoed. Gov. Pawlenty has repeatedly said that he would veto a gas tax increase of any kind. Pawlenty has put forward a 10-year, $1.7 billion transportation plan that uses borrowing to finance road projects. The governor says the public will not support a gas tax increase, especially since prices are increasing as the peak summer driving season approaches.
"Gas is $3 a gallon. The majority of Minnesotans do not support a gas tax increase," Pawlenty said. "I have a plan that would move road construction and transportation funding forward in Minnesota without raising gas taxes. They should pass my plan."
Several critics say Pawlenty's plan doesn't fully meet the need. Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, called the governor's plan "credit card borrowing." He says the state needs to raise the gas tax in addition to borrowing, and that's why the new bill includes both the tax and bonding authority.
"The needs are tremendous. They're overwhelming. Without the bonds in there, even the rest of the bill, we don't get where we need to be. I think that $1.5 billion in bonds. It's not the Senate number. It's not up to the governor's number but it's a good compromise between all three bodies," Murphy said.
DFL legislative leaders will now have to start rounding up the votes necessary to override a veto. The House was seven votes short of the two thirds majority needed to override when lawmakers passed a dime-a-gallon gas tax increase in March. They hope to garner stronger support now that the tax has been scaled back.
But a few Republicans say an override won't happen. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, voted for a 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase in 2005 and could vote for a nickel increase this year. But he said it's tantamount to public policy treason if the House GOP overrides a veto.
"Right now, as a member of the minority caucus, my seat at the table, my seat for influencing public policy is via the governor's office. The Democrats have a nearly two-thirds majority in the Legislature. Without the governor, I have no voice in the Legislature," Garofalo said.
A vote by the full House could come as early as Saturday.