House passes gas tax increase, but Senate likely to hit brakes

Gas pumps
Gas pumps in Cottage Grove, Minn., in May 2006.
Melanie Sommer | MPR News 2006

The Minnesota House voted 74-58 Monday to raise the state gas tax for the first time in seven years and make future increases easier to come by. But opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate means a state-prescribed cost hike isn't likely at the gas pump anytime soon.

The House bill would increase various transportation-related charges by $1.3 billion over the next two years to pay for road and bridge construction, as well as mass transit projects.

Minnesota has only slowly chipped away at a mounting project backlog, said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis and chair of the House Transportation Committee. He said the problem calls for a bold solution.

"We've cobbled together short-term plans that barely scratch the surface in terms of addressing our needs," he said during Monday's floor debate. "So we need a reliable, sustainable transportation funding system that can weather the storm of recession and budget deficits and to keep up with the needs of our growing state."

A lot of the new money would come through a higher gas tax. It would rise 20 cents a gallon over four years and then be tied to inflation after that. The per-gallon tax is 28.5 cents now.

Rep. Jon Koznik, R-Lakeville, said the transportation bill amounts to "highway robbery." He said Minnesota's transportation network can be repaired or expanded within existing resources rather than new taxes.

"And the Democrats want to tax you left and right on it — whether it's a gas tax, a sales tax and your tab fee increases. This bill moves Minnesota families in reverse," he said.

The proposal will struggle to make it the final mile.

Republicans have control of the state Senate and little interest in raising registration fees, sales taxes or, most of all, the gas tax.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said the DFL's plan is not going anywhere.

"We have a bill that lowers the gas tax 20 cents. If we compromise between the 20 cents up and the 20 cents down, we're at a perfect spot — no gas tax increase," he said.

Lawmakers must come up with money for daily operations of the state transportation agency, State Patrol and the Metropolitan Council. But anything that supplies substantial new money for transportation projects is optional this year. So, lack of a deal could just push the debate into next year.

Correction (April 29, 2019): An earlier version of this story erroneously stated it was the first time the House has voted to increase the gas tax in five years.