Minn. Legislature challenges Pawlenty by backing higher gas tax

DFLers confer
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, and Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, confer during debate on the gas tax in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Murphy voted for the bill. Rukavina was one of two DFLers to vote against it.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The legislation would raise the state's 20-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax for the first time since 1988. The additional five cents per gallon would raise $290 million every two years. Supporters say the revenue is needed to catch up with needed road and bridge improvements.

Sen. Steve Murphy of Red Wing says the gas tax would also help stop what he describes as the carnage on Minnesota highways.

"I've been to several funerals, several in the past three years, where friends of mine lost their kids because the roads are in such terrible shape in the state. Is it personal? You bet it is. And I think it should be personal for everyone in here," he said on the Senate floor.

The bill also authorizes a $1.5 billion bonding program for transportation projects. A surcharge to pay off that borrowing would add another 2.5 cents to the price of a gallon of gas.

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"Given the price at the pump -- $3.16 I paid this weekend -- if you add in the 5 cents we're going to tax plus the surcharge, you're going to add 7 1/2 cents to the price of gas with the passage of this bill. You can call it whatever you want, but it's going to hurt Minnesotans in the pocketbook to be sure," said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen.

The bill also includes a half-cent increase in the sales tax that Twin Cities metro area counties can impose without a referendum for transit projects. Greater Minnesota counties could also raise the sales tax, but voter approval is required. Add in higher license tab fees, as well as metro wheelage taxes, and the overall package would raise $534 million over the next two years.

During debate on the House floor, Republican Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall, predicted the bill doesn't have long to live.

"We have all these other omnibus bills that have gone through the same process. The conferees throw something out there and then hope that the governor might sign it. This bill is not going to be signed and the votes to override aren't there," he said.

The DFL-controled House passed the bill on a vote of 90 to 43, with seven Republicans voting for the bill and two Democrats voting against it. Ninety is the number of votes needed to override a veto.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, voted against the bill, but he's still not sure how he'll vote on a veto override.

"I'm tired of the middle class having to pay taxes and the lower middle class having to pay regressive taxes, while the people who are making all kinds of money in the economy aren't paying their fair share," he said.

There are also questions about the seven Republicans who voted against the gas tax. Rep. Neil Peterson, R-Bloomington, is one of only two who've said they will definitely vote against the governor.

"The governor made a promise to the state about no taxes," he said. "I didn't make that promise. I made a promise to my constituency to do what was right. And we need transportation and we need it done correctly. And I'm at the age and stage that I don't want put this burden on my eight grandkids."

An override looks more like a sure thing in the DFL Senate, where the vote on the gas tax bill was 47 to 17. Four Republicans voted with Democrats to pass the bill. It takes just 45 votes in the Senate to successfully challenge the governor. That means Democrats need just one Republican vote, and Sen. Steve Dille of Dassel says he's the one.

"It's just very clear that we need more money for our system out there. The governor's proposal does not provide any money for counties or cities, so that's not very helpful," Dille said.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate say they'll work hard to keep their ranks unified in support of the governor. Gov. Pawlenty has been pushing a transportation plan that relies primarily on borrowing to pay for several priority road projects. He also suggested lawmakers put a gas tax increase on the ballot and let voters decide the issue.