The Mason-Dixon poll conducted for Minnesota Public Radio surveyed 625 registered voters from Monday through Wednesday. The results show 51 percent support a 5-cents-per-gallon increase in the gas tax to pay for improvements to roads and bridges, compared to 45 percent opposed and 4 percent undecided. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points.
Even with pump prices well over $3 per gallon, motorists, like Richard Dougherty of Woodbury, are ready to pay a little more.
"We need to improve the roads, and I don't approve of the bonding concept of borrowing the money to do it," he said. "I think it needs to come out of a tax. And I would even be in favor of a 10-cent gas tax. It's been way to long since they've raised it. And it just needs to be done if you're going to have the money to do the roads. "
Dougherty says he thinks a lot of motorists feel the same. But the poll also shows there's a limit to how much the public is willing to pay for better roads and bridges. Support fell to 37 percent when respondents were asked about a dime-a-gallon gas tax increase. Fifty-nine percent opposed a 10-cent hike and four percent were undecided.
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"I think the polling probably reflects what I heard when I knocking on doors this past election," said Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing. He says he understands why motorists would have a tough time supporting a dime increase. He says that's why House and Senate negotiators agreed this week to lower the proposed increase to a nickel as part of their transportation finance bill. It would be the first hike in the state's 20-cent tax since 1988.
"You put a nickel on, and people first off probably aren't even going to see it," Murphy said. "And second, that money is going to and fix up the roads and bridges. And that's what people want."
Under the DFL-backed transportation bill, the gas tax would increase by 5 cents a gallon beginning September 1. It would go up another 2.5 cents within the next five years. Additional revenue would come from borrowing, local fees and levies as well as a Twin Cities area sales tax increase for transit projects. The proposal is also heading toward a veto. Gov. Pawlenty doesn't like the plan or the new poll.
"The poll doesn't ask the totality of what the Democrats have now rolled out," said Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung. The DFL plan goes well beyond a gas tax increase, according to McClung. He says poll respondents might have second thoughts about a nickel increase if they were given details about the full impact of the plan. McClung says another recent poll showed much stronger opposition to a gas tax increase.
"I think though if you went out and looked at people as they're filling up their gas pump, they look up and see at how much it costs and see that it's over $3 a gallon, and then you ask them if they're for the Democrat plan to put at least another 5 cents but up to another 7.5 cents on the gas tax, they're really not going to be for that," he said. Despite the veto threat, DFL leaders in the House and Senate are ready to vote on the gas tax increase. DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis says she thinks the poll results could win a few more Republican votes.
"It's far more important to members of the Legislature to represent their constituents and to do the right thing by their constituents. And so I do think that by moving to the nickel gas tax and putting together a package that will mean serious investment in both roads and transit, I think there will be a number of members, Republican members of the House, who will be very interested in the proposal," she said.
House Democrats would have to get at least five Republican votes if they want to override the governor's veto.
"We don't have a voice if the governor starts getting thrown under the bus wheel politically," said House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall. "And so that's where our strength is as a caucus. If the governor gets overridden, or strength at the Capitol is diminished to the point of being irrelevant."
The House and Senate could vote as soon as Monday on the transportation finance bill and the nickel gas tax increase.