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Senate Republican leader adds voice to call for gas-tax hike
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Senate Minority Leader Dick Day's plan is one of several built around an increase in the state's gas tax, which has been at 20 cents for 16 years. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) The top Senate Republican threw his weight Wednesday behind a nickel-per-gallon hike in the gas tax and proposed adding a surcharge on car sales to help pay for road construction.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Day's plan is one of several built around an increase in the state's gas tax, which has been at 20 cents for 16 years. Along with a $125 surcharge on new cars and $75 surcharge on used cars, his proposal would steer an additional $260 million a year toward road work.

Day, R-Owatonna, said his gas-tax proposal would mean an additional $24 a year in taxes from a Minnesotan who drives 12,000 miles a year in a car that gets 25 miles per gallon.

But the plan runs squarely into Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's no-new-tax campaign pledge in which he promised to veto any tax increases. If the Legislature passes a gas-tax increase, he has three options: He can sign it, veto it or permit it to become law without taking action. It would be difficult for lawmakers to override a veto.

"The governor would be a fool if he didn't let it lie on his desk and become law," Day said. "We're falling behind everyday."

Pawlenty is recommending a $7 billion road plan, funded largely through new borrowing. A senior Pawlenty adviser, Tom Mason, said the governor has been clear on the gas tax.

"Any transportation bill that includes a gas-tax increase without requiring voter approval is on a road to nowhere," Mason said. "It's not going to get his support."

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said Democrats will probably propose a gas-tax increase next week. He hinted it could be above what Day suggested.

"I'm not sure if the Republicans are willing to confront the governor, but I think they're trying to show the governor there is support for this," Murphy said.

In the GOP-controlled House, Majority Leader Erik Paulsen acknowledged that support for a gas tax is growing. But he said it would be better to structure it as a constitutional amendment for voters to decide in 2006. Constitutional amendments don't need a governor's approval to be placed on the ballot.

Response to the car sale surcharge was more measured. Paulsen said it's worth discussing and Murphy described it as "creative" but in need of refinement so used-car surcharges don't meet or exceed sale prices.

In a typical year, 300,000 new cars and 765,000 used cars are sold in Minnesota.

Scott Lambert of the 470-member Minnesota Auto Dealers Association said the group will fight the surcharge, which would be on top of regular vehicle sales taxes. He worries that it would cause car buyers to go across state lines to buy vehicles of the upfront charges grow.

"How many times can you tax the same item?" Lambert asked. "It's anti-consumer."

Day regularly proposes attention-getting transportation packages - with varied success. In the past, he's gotten the state Department of Transportation to change freeway ramp-meter system (he's asking this year that 100 meters be turned off on low-volume ramps) and to post signs encouraging motorists to reserve the left lane on highways for passing (he's trying again to add the force of law to the admonishment).