Pressure builds as transportation vote nears

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Lawmakers are set to vote on Thursday for a bill that would pump billions into road, bridge and transit projects.
MPR Photo/Sam Choo

Assuming every Democrat in the House votes for the bill, five Republican votes would be needed to override a veto. Some lawmakers say the lobbying is coming hard from both sides.

"You want us to break your left arm or your right arm?" is the way Rep. Neil Peterson, R-Bloomington characterized the approach.

"You want us to break your left arm or your right arm?"

He said he'll vote for the bill and is hoping that the governor will allow it to become law. When asked if he would vote to override a veto, Peterson wouldn't commit.

"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," he said. "But if that's what I have to do the governor has to do what he has to do and I believe I need to do what I need for the best interest of not only my community but for the needs of the state."

Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport, said he'll decide when it's time to vote. That being said, Heidgerken said he hasn't signed any pledges to oppose tax increases like the governor did during his first term. He said a report this week by the Legislative Auditor shows that the Minnesota Department of Transportation won't have enough funding to meet basic needs. He said he's unhappy that more money was directed to new construction in recent years.

"I have all the old roads," he said. "I have a mouthful of rotting teeth. I don't need any new teeth. I need maintenance money."

Supporters of the $8 billion transportation bill say it would inject new money into the system. It includes a nickel a gallon gas tax increase for road and bridge projects and a half cent metrowide sales tax increase for transit projects. The bill would also phase in another gas tax increase of three and a half cents to pay off construction debt. That surcharge would decrease as debt is paid off.

Both supporters and opponents of the legislation claim the other side is using underhanded tactics but they won't offer specifics.

But there are signs that deals are being made. A provision has been added to the bill that would expand Highway 60 in southern Minnesota. That highway is in Rep. Rod Hamilton's district, and construction companies have been lobbying him to support the bill. Hamilton was away from the Capitol on Wednesday and was unavailable to comment.

GOP House Minority Leader Marty Seifert said there have also been threats to keep projects out of this year's bonding bill if lawmakers choose to vote against the bill.

"It's a full court, what I think un-Minnesotan- like attitude," he said. "Instead of sitting down and compromising and working this out like adults. It's a no-holds-barred lobbying effort."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Minnesota Republican Party are also doing some lobbying. A party spokesman said they've been urging GOP activists to contact their legislators and urge them to vote against the bill.

Pawlenty spoke before the GOP caucus Wednesday.

"In a time when families are struggling to keep up with health care costs and grocery bills and fuel costs that the DFL's proposal: to add eight and a half cents to the gas tax, to add a half cent to the sales tax, to add tab fees to car owners," he told lawmakers. "That's too heavy of a burden."

DFLers may be willing to scale back the size of the metrowide sales tax increase in order to get more votes. Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL- Minneapolis is a chief advocate for transit projects.

When asked if supporters would be willing to lower the sales tax, he said, "We're open. It's a day. We want to get a bill done. We want to get it passed. We preferably want to get it signed into law but one way or another we're going to get it signed into law this year."

The prospects of a veto override are much greater in the Minnesota Senate. DFLers already have enough votes to override and several Republicans said they support the bill.

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