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Pump Politics
By Michael Khoo
June 23, 2000
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Despite signs of falling gas prices, House Republicans called on Governor Jesse Ventura to convene a special legislative session to suspend the state's gasoline excise tax. Ventura quickly nixed the idea, but not before a flurry of competing proposals emerged aimed at combatting high prices at the pump.

Average Gas Price History
June $1.89
May $1.69
April $1.49
March $1.39
February $1.47
January $1.31

Regular unleaded
HOUSE SPEAKER STEVE SVIGGUM says that since gasoline prices began to climb, constituents have clamored for relief. The message, he says, was disarmingly simple: Talk is cheap. Gas is expensive.

Though gas prices seem to be falling again, Sviggum says he'd still like to see a holiday on the state's 20-cents-per-gallon excise tax. Brandishing a plastic gas canister, he urged Ventura to call a special legislative session to consider suspending the tax from the Fourth of July through Labor Day at an estimated cost of $115 million. The GOP plan would fill that hole with surplus money, which Sviggum says is already accumulating in the state's coffers. He says the plan combines relief at the pump with an old, Republican standby.

"Republicans are about cutting taxes, and we want to cut taxes for families - something that will help and affect families in their life, whether it's taking the kids and making sure Mom and Dad can go to the soccer game, whether they can go to the baseball game, whether they can take the family and go on the vacation up to Brainerd, Bemidji, wherever it may be, and still do the family events and the family activities which are so important to Minnesotans, to our tradition, and to the summers," says Sviggum.

Senate DFLers responded cautiously to the proposal. Majority Leader Roger Moe says he's willing to discuss a special session and an excise tax moratorium, but he says he'll insist two conditions be met: first, that any foregone revenue can indeed be replaced with surplus money and, second, that the tax break isn't soaked up by oil companies.

"If you reduce the gas tax and have a gas-tax holiday, and that is not passed on penny for penny to the consumer, then all this talk is just gas," says Moe. "I think what this really does is begs a broader public policy question."

"I think it's a knee-jerk reaction."

- Governor Ventura
Moe says the state has to think beyond a temporary tax holiday and should consider ways to reduce its dependence on petroleum products. But any legislative proposal is at the mercy of the governor as House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty acknowledged.

"Our plan here depends on the governor's willingness and ability to call at least a one-day special session to get these changes enacted," says Pawlenty. "And we want to make sure that the message goes out to the governor that there is a real life drama unfolding in Minnesota. And it's not The Young and the Restless.

Ventura, by his own account, noticed the drama; but he called it "political posturing." On his weekly radio show, the governor said rising prices had already peaked and were now beginning to fall, and he said the fluctuations were the result of supply and demand movements, not tax policy. Ventura said he has no intention of calling a special session.

"I think it's a knee-jerk reaction," said Ventura. "It's an election year and, you know, election politics many times will prevail and not good common sense. If the disaster is over, if the blip is happened and it's starting back down."

Ventura says he fears a special session, once convened, could spiral out of control as each lawmaker proposed his or her own remedy for gas prices. And by the end of the day, DFL Representative Doug Peterson of Madison was proposing an ambitious plan to meet 95 percent of Minnesota's energy needs with in-state resources by 2020. And Republican Senator Cal Larson of Fergus Falls was calling for tougher penalties for motorists who steal gas from service stations.