Transportation bill headed to governor's desk

Traffic 2
The bill passed by the Legislature would add $660 million per year in spending for roads, bridges and metro area transit projects.
MPR Photo/Sam Choo

The bill would pump $660 million dollars a year into transportation over the next 10 years. The Senate passed the bill 47-20 Thursday night, hours after the House passed it 89-44.

In the end, six Republicans joined all but two DFLers in the House to support the legislation. DFL House Speaker Margaret Kelliher said she's confident that support will grow when it's time to override a promised veto by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"There's room for the vote total to grow in this case towards a veto override," she said. "I think some people made a decision on the earlier bill before changes were made today, and so I think they like what they are starting to see in this bill and need to get comfortable with it."

Kelliher says this is the only transportation funding bill that lawmakers will consider this year. It includes a nickel a gallon gas tax increase, and an additional gas tax surcharge of up to three and a half cents a gallon to pay off road construction debt. The surcharge will decline as the debt gets smaller.

It also includes a quarter cent sales tax increase in the metro area that is dedicated to transit projects. That sales tax was twice that before the House began its debate, but supporters lowered it in order to get more votes.

"Certainly we can put more money into transportation, but it shouldn't have to come out of the pockets of people who are struggling to pay their mortgages."

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce endorsed the change, and it also convinced Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka to vote for the bill. Abeler said he knows a gas tax increase isn't popular, but he said something has to be done on transportation.

"If I say do you want a tax? They would say, 'What am I, crazy?'" he said. "But if I say, 'Do you want Highway 10 built in your lifetime? Do you want 30 years to go by before they fix Highway 65? Do you want Highway 47 to ever be widened so people don't die on some of those corners? Do you wish they would have fixed it?' You would have said, 'We had better fix our roads.'"

Abeler urged the governor to sign the bill into law. But Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman said it will be vetoed. Pawlenty has said the bill is too large and includes too many tax increases.

Republican House Minority Leader Marty Seifert said lawmakers should not be passing tax increases at a time when the economy is struggling. He said the bill will hit lower income people the hardest.

"Certainly we can put more money into transportation. But it shouldn't have to come out of the pockets of people who are struggling to pay their mortgages, struggling with their health insurance premiums, struggling with gas prices, which you are just going to make higher with your bill," he said.

Several supporters of the legislation say the bill wouldn't have to be so expensive if lawmakers would have addressed the problem earlier.

It's been 20 years since the Legislature increased the gasoline tax. The urgency to pass a bill also increased after the 35W bridge collapse last August.

Sen. Steve Murphy, D-Red Wing, said the average metro family earning between $52,000 and $70,000 a year will pay about $126 a year more under the bill.

"Is it a tax increase? Yes," he said. "But I'm asking people, is $126 too much to ask to have safe roads, safe bridges and a transit system that actually moves people across the metropolitan region? I don't think so."

Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, said the gas tax increase prompted her to vote against the bill. She said it's possible that she would vote to override a gubernatorial veto.

The other House Democrat who opposed the bill, John Lesch of St. Paul, would not comment.

Some of the House Republicans who voted for the bill wouldn't say if they would take the next step to override a veto. The House failed to override a similar transportation bill last year.

Rep. Neil Peterson, R-Bloomington, said he was disappointed that many of his Republican colleagues voted against the bill this time, even after the Chamber of Commerce supported it.

"It's just going to be absolutely tragic to come out of here without a transportation bill after all of this work and all of this effort," he said. "We didn't pass it two years ago. We didn't pass it four years ago, and it's because Republicans didn't have the courage to do what's right."

Peterson said he'll wait and see the vote total before he commits to overriding the veto. Gov. Pawlenty has three days to take action on the bill after he receives it.

Speaker Kelliher said she expects to hold the override vote fairly quickly after the veto message returns to the House.