Gas tax ad plays at gas pumps — for now

There’s no escaping political ads this year in Minnesota with millions spent to target potential voters through television, the Internet, billboards and mailboxes. Now add gas pumps to the list -- at least for now.

A heated debate over the gas tax in the race for Minnesota governor has migrated to those screens that come on when drivers stop to refuel. To the dismay of an association that speaks for gas stations, the Republican-aligned Minnesota Action Network IE political action committee bought time on hundreds of fuel pump screens to criticize DFLer Tim Walz over taxes, including his proposal to raise the gas tax.

“There is a lot of traffic on traditional TV mediums and just pure exhaustion with traditional TV and the ads we’re fighting with there,” said the group’s executive director Gina Countryman. “As we try to be more creative about how to reach voters who are getting hammered on TV right now with ads from seven different directions, this might be a good way to do that.”

Her group reserved time for October through the Nov. 6 election. But whether the ad will stay up is an open question.

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The Minnesota Service Station and Convenience Store Association is looking into complaints it has been fielding about the ads, said executive director Lance Klatt.

Klatt said Wednesday that he was unfamiliar with the ad being aired but is worried about inundating customers with any political ads.

“I really don’t condone what they’re doing, and I need to get to the bottom of it. You should not be able to political ads on gas station TV. You should not be able to do that,” Klatt said. “It’s a reflection on the stores and my retailers. And my retailers don’t want to get into that argument or predicament.”

Klatt said the retailers have little control over the content on pump screens, other than room for them to advertise local promotions. Much of the content is packaged and uploaded by a third-party vendor.

With or without the gas station ads, the fight over the gas tax won’t disappear.

In a debate Tuesday night, Walz and Republican opponent Jeff Johnson went back-and-forth for about 10 minutes over funding for transportation.

Walz supports increasing the 28.5 cent-per-gallon gas tax, which is dedicated to road and bridge projects. The national average is 31 cents, with all neighboring states but North Dakota assessing customers more than Minnesota charges.

“You have to have an honest conversation with the citizens of Minnesota who will pay for things that they know improve this country and this state,” Walz said.

Johnson said his approach would be to sell bonds and tap into the general treasury to prioritize highway upgrades.

“I don’t think we need an increase in the gas tax,” Johnson said at the debate in Willmar. “We are one of the highest-taxed states in America. We’ve seen a 53 percent increase in spending in eight years in Minnesota, and then we claim we can’t do the basic things of government. It’s because we can’t focus.”