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House road plan includes no gas tax increase
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
March 26, 2002

The Minnesota House spent less than five minutes on a $750 million transportation funding package that doesn't raise the gas tax. With no debate and no amendments, the bill passed largely along party lines. Democrats say the bill is so bad it wasn't worth trying to improve. It must now be reconciled with the Senate's $5 billion transportation package.

Capitol observers were expecting a lengthy fight over the gas tax on the House floor, but this was the extent of the debate.

The vote was 71-61, with only one Democrat in favor of the bill. It would borrow for $750 million worth of road projects over five years. The bonds would be repaid with the natural growth in the fund fed by the gas tax and license tab fees.

Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty says most House Republicans oppose raising the state's 20-cent a gallon gas tax. He says gas tax opponents persuaded the rest of the caucus to unite behind the bill.

"Our caucus was very comfortable with the bill and what was in it, and either our friends on the other side of the aisle were sleeping at the switch or didn't have much to say or offer," Pawlenty said.

DFL Minority Leader Tom Pugh of South St. Paul says there was no reason to engage in a protracted debate, because the bill won't address the state's transportation needs.

"Congestion as usual; roads and bridges still in need of repair. There's nothing in the bill that advances the cause of transportation. Frankly it really wasn't worth any debate on the floor," according to Pugh.

House Democrats say the bill puts no new money into roads and transit; it uses money that would normally go to transportation projects anyway. But the bill's author, Rep. Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester, says borrowing the money up front is cost-effective.

"A lot of these projects, because they're spread out over six, seven years, you patchwork them together. If you can get these projects done at a quicker pace, you save money," he said.

Kuisle's bill initially included a floating gas tax increase that would vary from a fraction of a cent to 5-cents a gallon over the next decade. The rate would've been calculated from the amount of outstanding debt on the roads projects.

But Kuisle says it was clear most House Republicans wouldn't support a tax increase, and the goal was to pass a bill and begin negotiating with the Senate.

The Senate bill raises the gas tax by 6 cents and automatically adjusts it for inflation. The author of the Senate bill, Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says the state's transportation projects need an infusion of new money. He says the House bill fails in that regard.

"It's difficult to find something positive, but I'm going to. They took a vote, and they passed something along so we go to conference committee," Johnson said.

Johnson says transportation advocates will put the pressure on House Republicans over the Easter holiday weekend to support a gas tax increase.

A coalition of business groups is backing a 3.5-cent hike. The chair of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Tom Workman, R-Chanhassen, has been pushing the coalition's proposal. He's predicting that a gas tax increase of between 3.5 and 5-cents a gallon will ultimately emerge from conference committee.

"We got a lot of work to do to figure out really what the tolerance level of both bodies is. The Senate's... transportation bill is full of unimaginable things that aren't going to pass, and so, the caucus really thought we ought to start low, since the Senate started so high," according to Workman.

Transportation advocates say they're somewhat optimistic that the House and Senate can agree on a funding package. The gas tax hasn't gone up since 1988, and transportation funding usually gets bogged down at the end of session. But the 2002 election gives legislators added incentive to accomplish something this year before hitting the campaign trail.

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