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Proponents of increased gas tax counting on groundswell of support
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Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says support for new road and bridge money runs deep. He says once that groundswell becomes visible at the Capitol, the new governor will rethink its reluctance to raise the gas tax. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
The chair of the Senate Transportation Finance Committee has dusted off last year's plan to boost the state gas tax by pennies on the gallon, but despite support from key legislative leaders, the proposal is likely to meet stiff resistance from Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The new administration has pledged to veto state tax increases of any kind.

St. Paul, Minn. — The state gas tax has been steady at 20-cents-a-gallon for 15 years, leading Senate DFLers to argue -- last year -- that the time had come for a boost. The proposal ultimately led nowhere, thanks in part to the opposition of then House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty. Now in the governor's seat, Pawlenty has proposed borrowing money for a quick infusion into road and highway projects. But Senate Transportation Finance Chairman Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says that's not enough. Johnson says the state needs to increase revenues in order to retire repay the borrowed money.

"If you have sold the bonds, we need to provide money for the debt service. And if you do not have debt service availability, then you will cut into construction projects. And you will also cut into maintenance -- ongoing maintenance that the MnDOT districts provide," he said.

Johnson says he'll resubmit last year's plan, which increases the gas tax by 6-cents-a-gallon. That's expected to generate $2 billion over the next 10 years. Roughly one-third of that would be diverted into a so-called "multi-modal fund" that the new administration could use for transit projects in addition to traditional highway spending.

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Image House Speaker Steve Sviggum

But Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who also wears the hat of transportation commissioner, says there will be no gas tax increase.

"The gas tax is a gas tax. It's a tax. And I think this administration has been very clear on not promoting tax increases," she said.

Republican lawmakers are also uncomfortable with the multi-modal fund. House Speaker Steve Sviggum says he has no interest in raising the gas tax only to see a portion of it siphoned off for buses, light-rail, or other mass transit.

But Johnson says he's willing to ditch the multi-modal fund if doing so would generate support for the new transportation dollars. Sviggum, along with the other legislative leaders of both parties, have indicated a personal willingness to raise the gas tax.

The speaker says he won't cross the governor on this point, but he points out that Pawlenty made the no-new-taxes pledge wasn't the only promise Pawlenty made.

"The governor has talked about a significant investment in transportation, too. So he speaks about a specific... a significant investment in transportation. We just now have got to connect some dots, is all we need to be able to do," Sviggum said.

Sviggum has argued that a gas tax, because it is constitutionally dedicated to transportation spending, is closer to a user fee than a general tax.

Sen. Johnson offers a similar argument. Johnson says support for new road and bridge money runs deep; from chambers of commerce to labor unions. And he says once that groundswell becomes visible at the Capitol, he believes the new governor will rethink its reluctance to raise the gas tax.

"When the administration begins to see -- and the general public -- that there is support for increasing a gas tax and increasing revenues that maybe the Pawlenty-Molnau administration would reconsider. And we have to try," Johnson said.

Johnson's plan also calls for a metropolitan-area referendum to hike the sales tax by half-a-penny for transportation initiatives in the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs. If approved, Johnson estimates the 11-county metro could generate more than $2 billion before the tax expired in 10 years.

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