Pawlenty open to gas tax increase after bridge collapse

Gov. Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks at a press conference regarding the collapsed Interstate 35 bridge Thursday in Minneapolis.
David Lienemann/Getty Images

(AP)- Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Friday he is willing to reverse his longstanding opposition to a state gas tax increase in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

The state's gas tax has been at 20 cents per gallon since 1988. Pawlenty had vetoed bills to raise it in 2005 and earlier this year.

"Everything is on the table," Pawlenty said Friday evening on the "Almanac" news program. "I will be moving to consider and put on the table a gas tax increase."

Pawlenty said he hoped in exchange, legislators would accept some of his ideas for funding roads and bridges.

After meeting Friday with the Republican governor, Minnesota's legislative leaders began putting lawmakers on standby for a post-Labor Day special session. Pawlenty said in an interview earlier Friday that he would likely summon lawmakers to St. Paul to respond to the bridge disaster.

No date has been set and the details of emergency legislation still have to be worked out.

The gas-tax shift is a huge political concession for Pawlenty, who has stood firmly against any state tax increases during his 4¼ years in office. In light of the bridge tragedy, "We've got to come together and we've got to move forward," he said.

Pawlenty's second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, scoffed at the idea of a gas tax increase at a press conference Friday. Molnau doubles as the state transportation commissioner.

"If you think raising the gas tax will take care of the problems - because that's how we've always paid for our infrastructure - it can't keep up any longer," Molnau said. "We do need to look for resources that we can count on long term. But I will tell you, we would have to raise the gas tax 34, 35 cents a gallon to do what you're asking us to do. And I don't think the motoring public nor the commerce in this state could sustain that."

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a Minneapolis Democrat, didn't immediately return a call for comment. Nor did House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, whose GOP caucus fended off an override of Pawlenty's most recent veto. A bill containing an immediate nickel-per-gallon increase and more increases in the future fell seven votes short of override in the House this May.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said Pawlenty deserves credit for yielding on the gas tax.

"This notion we can buy things without having cash on hand. That's behind us now," Murphy said. "We need real money to solve real problems. The governor is starting to realize that."

Murphy said he wants to see at least $1 billion in new transportation spending each year. Every penny the gas tax is raised would bring in about $30 million. Long-term borrowing, as Pawlenty has advocated, would likely be part of the package, Murphy said.

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