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GOP moderates defy Pawlenty on gas tax
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Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, offered the gas tax amendment. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
In open defiance of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's no-new-tax pledge, a group of moderate House Republicans has joined with Democrats to endorse a dime per gallon increase in the state gas tax over the next three years. Shortly after midnight Thursday morning, the House incorporated the tax hike into a transportation funding bill and then adjourned before a final vote on the total package. The tax hike is nonetheless a rebuke to Pawlenty and GOP leaders who've resisted any general tax increases.

The action is likely to be short-lived. House Republican leaders are already vowing to remove the provision when the transportation debate resumes later Thursday.

St. Paul, Minn. — The gas tax increase passed on a bare 68-66 majority, with seven Republicans joining 61 Democrats, but it was enough for supporters to declare a new shift in the political landscape.

Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, offered the gas tax amendment. He says the bipartisan consensus, cobbled together from the rank-and-file, could be extended to other areas of state government despite large differences between legislative leaders in the House and Senate.

We're trying to get something in the center that moves Minnesota ahead.
- Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina

"It would be a new dawn for Minnesota if that happens, because right now they're a little bit iffy on the edges," Erhardt said. "And we're trying to get something in the center that moves Minnesota ahead."

Erhardt's amendment would boost the gas tax from the current 20 cents per gallon to 30 cents by 2008. The tax hasn't seen an increase since 1988.

The package would also raise motor vehicle registration fees, direct a portion of the metropolitan sales tax to transit funding, and allow counties to impose their own $20 levy on cars registered in their borders. Over the next 10 years, the package would pump $7.8 billion into transportation projects, just under one-fourth of that for public transit.

But it may not last past noon Thursday. The amendment was added to the House transportation funding bill, but a final vote on the legislation was delayed until the House reconvenes.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, says he expects some members who voted "yes" to reconsider and help strip the amendment from the bill when the body reconvenes.

"It's on the bill for a few hours. And when members see the total consequence of the heaviness towards transit, the consequence of a 10-cent gas tax increase, you know, when gas (prices) ... are at the pump, two dollars a gallon - I think that there will be a renewed look at it," Sviggum said.

Sviggum himself favors a gas tax increase -- but he points out that Gov. Pawlenty has clearly voiced his opposition to one. Sviggum says there's no point in passing legislation that, in the end, won't make it past Pawlenty's desk.

"The governor's going to veto this bill," Sviggum said. "He would veto this bill. And it doesn't make any sense to me to do something that's confrontational, go in the face of the governor, who's said he'll veto a bill such as this, and not move ahead with transportation. That makes no sense."

Pawlenty has proposed borrowing to pay for highway projects and redirecting money used for general state purposes to road and transit improvements. Many lawmakers consider that inadequate, including a sizeable block of Republicans.

In the DFL-controlled Senate, increases in the gas tax and car tab fees are also advancing, backed by a substantial number of GOP votes.

House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, says the Senate's course and the bipartisan gas tax vote in the House should be enough to convince Pawlenty to reconsider his position.

"It's very sad that they seem beholden to the old way of doing things as opposed to our bipartisan effort, but they seem intent on doing that," Entenza said.

If the tax hike makes it past the House, past the Senate and lands on the governor's desk, the House vote was too slim to override an expected veto.

But even before the gas tax was debated, a separate amendment to increase just the tab fees was also successful. The vote on that earlier measure was 96-38 in favor -- lopsided and, barring major defections, veto-proof.