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House negotiators now open to gas tax increase
By Tom Scheck
Minnesota Public Radio
April 17, 2002

Budget negotiations proceeded at a snail's pace at the state Capitol. A co-chairman of a joint House-Senate budget balancing conference committee says he sees little need to meet until legislative leaders agrees to spending targets for conference committees. About the only sign of movement came on transportation funding. House Republicans made their first indication that they would be open to a gas tax increase.

Legislative leaders say they're making little progress towards fixing the final pieces of the state's projected budget deficit. Lawmakers acted quickly to erase nearly $2 billion in anticipated shortfalls but still the state faces another $439 million deficit in the current budget cycle. Negotiators have been meeting off-and-on for weeks to bridge the final differences. Republican House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty says fundamental philosophic differences remain. He and Sen. Roger Moe appeared on MPR's Midday broadcast on 4/17/02. (Listen).


House Republicans have been holding firm against any proposed tax increases, but House transportation conferees now say they're open to a gas tax hike.

Rep. Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester, says the revenue would repay debt on any transportation projects above the $750 million originally proposed by the House. However, Kuisle says he isn't sure Republicans other than the conferees will go along.

"This is really sticking our necks out. That's a lot of the concerns the speaker had, even though he supported a gas tax, he realizes it's going to be tough to pass the House and we need to get everybody on board before we go down that road. So we're trying to write out all of the concepts and get that out there so we know what it's going to look like," Kuisele said.

Kuisle says his caucus will only support the measure if the entire gas tax goes towards road and bridge construction. He said there would be no way they would agree to a tax increase if the money goes towards transit projects.

Senate DFLers are calling for an increase in the gas tax of six cents. The money would go for both roads and transit.

Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says he's pleased House Republicans have moved from a position of no taxes. However, Johnson says the Senate wants a comprehensive package.

"The political make-up of the Minnesota Senate is that we have to have a balanced approach and it's a very, very delicate balance between the Minneapolis-St. Paul senators and the rural senators, so unless this balance takes place we are still treading in Jello® and it doesn't get very far," Johnson said.

"We're not accomplishing anything by meeting here. We come in for three hours each day and exchange insults and compliments and then we go away. "

- Rep. Kevin Goodno, R-Rochester

Johnson says the Senate DFLers will offer counterproposal soon.

While there is movement in transportation negotiations, one House Republican called the pace of budget negotiations "glacier-like." House Republicans want to cut state spending and use a portion of the state's tobacco endowment to fix the $439 million projected budget shortfall, while the Senate DFL plan uses accounting shifts and includes a cigarette tax increase.

The stalemate has prompted Republican chair Kevin Goodno to announce that he he won't call another committee hearing until Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and House Speaker Steve Sviggum reach a compromise on the state's spending targets. He says the committee can't do anything until members know how much can be spent on in the transportation, bonding and anti-terrorism initiatives.

"If we don't have those targets, there's no way we can complete our job. We're not accomplishing anything by meeting here. We come in for three hours each day and exchange insults and compliments and then we go away. We're not really accomplishing anything and we're not putting a budget together," Goodno said.

However, DFL Senator Doug Johnson says it's the job of the conference committee members to continue negotiating until they reach a deal. Senate DFLers brought forward a counterproposal that would "blink on" the proposed cigarette tax increase in January and "blink off" the tax when the state's budget reserves reach $500 million. The Senate plan also increases spending an additional $900,000.

Johnson says it's important that the two sides continue meeting. "To pass the buck on to Speaker Sviggum and Sen. Moe is unfortunate. I think Minnesotans want us to get our work done and if we don't meet we don't get our work done," he said.

While lawmakers may feel that they need to reach a quick resolution on their differences, Gov. Ventura said he's indifferent to the budget stalemate.

"There's no pressure. They have until May 20 and I'm not pressuring them at all. That's how the law provides them to be that long and certainly if they need every minute of it, it's there for them. Now if they don't finish May 20, that's another story," Ventura said.

Ventura said, however, it wasn't a good sign that the two sides are no longer communicating.

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