May 12, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — Is it a lesson in bipartisanship or a waste of time? It depends on whom you ask. Supporters say the transportation bill's passage is a bipartisan compromise that will improve the state's roads, bridges and public transportation.
Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, was among 10 Republicans who voted for the package, gas tax increase and all. He says he hopes the vote will force Gov. Pawlenty to reconsider his no new taxes pledge.
"The message to the governor is: 'we've done something for the state. Maybe you should take a hard look at this and see if you can agree,'" he said.
Erhardt says the poor state of Minnesota's transportation infrastructure means it's time to raise a gas tax that hasn't gone up since 1988. The plan would increase the tax in phases over the next three years. It would also raise license tab fees, direct a portion of the metropolitan sales tax to transit funding and allow counties to impose a $20 levy on cars. In total, it would raise $7.7 billion for transportation projects.
But critics say it's pointless to pass a bill that's going to get vetoed. Republican House leaders did some serious arm-twisting to convince his members to vote against a gas tax increase.
Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says those who voted in favor of the bill are playing into the hands of House and Senate DFLers who want to send a tax increase to Gov. Pawlenty.
"We could have done a very, very good package but they had to go for the whole enchilada and they'll end up with nothing," Sviggum said.
Others, like Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, says he voted against the bill because it doesn't do enough for rural Minnesota.
"If you think that rural Minnesota and our area is going to get highway projects, I have some oceanfront property in Marshall, Minnesota to sell you," Seifert said.
In the end, the total project was too enticing for a block of Republicans representing the Twin Cities suburbs. Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, says his constituents are frustrated by legislative gridlock on road improvements.
"My constituents want Highway 10 to get fixed," he said. "It's not in the 20-year plan. Without this kind of action, it will never get fixed before I retire. That's what pushes me to try to do the hard but right thing to make this thing better."
Abeler, like the governor, signed a pledge not to raise taxes. But Pawlenty is not willing to waver on his pledge. Pawlenty's chief of staff, Dan McElroy, said Pawlenty would only support a gas tax if it receives voter approval.
"The governor has been very clear that he can't approve a gas tax that doesn't go to the voters. Most gas taxes across the country have gone to the voters. Our constitution has a number of provisions on transportation today," he said.
But House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul says the governor is going to have to do a better job of negotiating with both House and Senate DFLers. He says the governor can no longer rely on House Republicans to protect him from making hard decisions.
"This governor has been molly-coddled for his first two years. He had large Republican majorities that have protected him and he hasn't had to deal with veto overrides. He is going to have to learn the meaning of the work compromise," Entenza said.
The bill now moves to the DFL-controlled Senate. The Senate can pass the House bill and send it to the governor or pass a different bill and negotiate their differences in conference committee.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson wouldn't discuss his intentions, but couldn't resist a jab at the governor.
"There's a tremendous pressure on legislators to put financial resources into our transportation system," according to Johnson. "It's quite evident that the no-new-tax pledge cracked today. The bumper sticker got some rust on it."
Senate DFLers have proposed a 7-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase. Johnson says the Senate could take up either the House or Senate transportation funding package as early as Monday.