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Big gas tax increase accompanies transportation package passed by Senate
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
March 21, 2002
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The Minnesota Senate has passed the largest transportation funding package in state history. It would put an additional $5 billion into roads and transit over the next decade. The Ventura administration helped craft the bill, but House Republican leaders say its hefty price tag is irresponsible.

The bill would raise the state's 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax by 6 cents. The gas tax, which hasn't gone up since 1988, would also automatically rise with inflation. The bill's author, Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says the Legislature needs to make a major investment to address the state's transportation needs.

"Five billion - that's a lot of money. That's over 10 years, please understand that. But it will make a significant difference, and not just a feel-good session of schmoozing here about buses and highways, but this is the most aggressive funding package the state's ever passed," he said.

The bill asks voters in the metro area to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to fund transportation projects. If approved, that would account for $2 billion of the total $5 billion price tag.

The Senate spent less than 45-minutes debating the bill, before voting 39-26 to pass it. One of the no votes was Republican Senate Minority Leader Dick Day of Owatonna, a visible advocate for commuters who has opposed ramp meters and "sane lanes" for high occupancy vehicles.

Day says he was willing to support a 3.5 cent gas tax, but his constituents would never go for a 6-cent hike.

"They're out spending like the typical DFL caucus."

- Rep. Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester

"They've told me that gas is $1.07, went up to $1.40, just in the last 10 days, so I'm getting tons of calls that don't want a gas tax, period; people that drive back and forth to work, so I was going out a limb a little bit at 3.5," Day said.

The Senate bill appears to have the backing of Gov. Ventura. Johnson says the governor's finance and transportation commissioners worked with him on the bill, and indicated Ventura would likely support it. But the bill won't get the backing of House Republicans.

"They're out spending like the typical DFL caucus, and we're trying to do it with a reasonable approach," said Assistant House Majority Leader Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester.

Kuisle is sponsoring a roads-only transportation package moving through the House. It would put $1.25 billion into roads and bridges over the next 10 years. The state would pay for the projects with highway bonds, which would be repaid by a floating gas tax increase. The tax would increase anywhere from a fraction of a cent to 5 cents a gallon, depending on the amount needed each year to pay off the bonds.

Kuisle says the bill that ultimately emerges from the House will be leaner than the Senate bill.

"They have tried, it sounds like, to buy off everybody in order to get this thing passed, but in the end, you've got to be somewhat responsible and only put in what the system can absorb, and still get rid of the bottlenecks, which is our number-one objective in the House," according to Kuisle.

Kuisle says many members of his caucus are still opposed to any gas tax increase. Some transportation advocates worry that if the issue gets bogged down in politics, that once again, the Legislature won't be able to pass a transportation package.

"I don't think any House member wants to see on their campaign brochures a whole series of potholes and unsafe highways," counters Sen. Johnson.

Kuisle agrees that legislators don't want to have to tell constituents they didn't do anything for transportation this year. He says the tough part will be working out an agreement by next Wednesday, when legislative leaders have said they want to adjourn.

More from MPR
  • Session 2002 Issue Briefing: Transportation