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DFLers invite showdown with Pawlenty over gas tax

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Margaret Anderson Kelliher
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher oversees the opening of the House on the first day of the 2008 legislative session.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

After ceremonial opening sessions of the House and Senate, members of the transportation committees in both bodies held hearings on the bill to repair roads and bridges, that supporters say will create thousands of new construction jobs. 

Gov. Pawlenty has already signaled he'll veto the DFL-backed bill, which would leave the transportation debate right back where it was at the end of last year's session -- at a stalemate. 

The most harmonious moment of the 2008 session may have occurred on its opening day, when Anna Carey and Maddy Sorenson serenaded lawmakers on the floor of the Minnesota House.

Doug Magnus and Marty Seifert
House Republican leaders Doug Magnus and Marty Seifert address reporters on the Minnesota Legislature's opening day.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

DFL legislators set the stage for a contentious session and another showdown with Gov. Pawlenty by introducing a transportation funding bill that looks a lot like the one the Republican governor vetoed last year. 

But six months after the I-35W  bridge collapse, Democrats are pushing ahead even with another veto looming. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy of Red Wing describes this year's bill as a courageous step forward. 

"This bill is aimed at making sure that all of our roads and bridges in Minnesota are safe," said Murphy. "It's a balanced bill between the needs here in the metropolitan area and the needs in Greater Minnesota. It's also balanced in the respect of transit concerns versus a roads-only approach."

The DFL proposal includes a borrowing plan that would dedicate $300 million a year to a bridge replacement program.  License fees would rise, and a half-cent metro area sales tax increase would go toward mass transit projects. 

Steve Murphy
DFL Sen. Steve Murphy hopes lawmakers act quickly to approve a transportation funding package that includes a 7.5 cent per gallon gas tax increase.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

The biggest chunk of new money would come from an increase in the state gas tax of seven and a half cents per gallon by 2010. Murphy says future increases would then come automatically, to adjust for inflation based on the consumer price index. 

"We're here because we haven't had an increase in the gas tax in 20 years. And here in Minnesota sometimes when it comes to raising taxes, it's a little difficult to do," Murphy said. "So we're just going to index the gas tax and let the CPI take care of adjusting that from one year to the next."

Low-income motorists would be eligible for a $25 tax credit to help offset the gas tax increase, but the added cost for an average-mileage driver is estimated to top $41 a year.       With the economy sagging, Murphy and other Democrats claim their transportation bill would bring a needed boost by creating 33,000 new jobs a year. 

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, disputes that job number. He also claims the bill would gouge Minnesotans. Seifert says if DFL leaders wanted Republican votes, they should have proposed a leaner bill.

"What they basically did is, behind closed doors, made a bill bigger, fatter, takes more money out of people's pockets than ever before, without even really consulting or talking the governor or us," said Seifert. "We had lots of time, I think, in the interim to be able to do this, but apparently they decided to go their own way on this."

Gov. Pawlenty's office offered a similar assessment. In a written statement, the governor said he was disappointed Democrats weren't willing to work on a more reasonable compromise. He also said the bill is destined for a veto.

Democrats have enough votes in the Senate to override a veto, and they're counting on enough Republican defections in the House this time to do the same. 

Senate Tax Committee Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, says nobody knows the outcome of the anticipated override vote. But he predicts it will weigh heavily on the rest of the session.

"If you get the transportation issue behind us, and we can start focusing on bonding and some kind of health care reform and on balancing the budget, it just will be much easier if we can kind of clear the deck of the transportation subject. So, I think that sets the tone," said Bakk.  

Lawmakers debated the transportation bill during opening-day hearings in both the House and Senate. Floor votes on the bill in both chambers are planned by the end of the month.