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No-tax pledge faces major test
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Senate Republican leader Dick Day of Owatonna says voters won't blame the governor for vetoing a dime a gallon increase, since Pawlenty already pushed through a major transportation package. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
For the first time in more than a decade, the Minnesota House has voted to raise the state's gas tax. Ten Republicans joined with most Democrats on Thursday to pass a $7.7 billion transportation package. It's also the first time the House has passed a tax increase since Gov. Pawlenty was elected, which could put his "no new taxes" stance to the test.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Minnesota House has long been the battleground on the state's 20-cent-a-gallon gas tax, which hasn't gone up since 1988. Lawmakers couldn't agree on whether to raise the tax, nor how to divide any money between rural and metro roads.

But supporters of a gas tax hike say the time is now. Republican Ron Erhardt of Edina, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, pushed for the 10-cent a gallon increase.

"People are tired of getting stuck in congestion in the metro area, and they're tired of not being able to move their crops to market in rural Minnesota," acording to Erhardt.

Erhardt and the nine other Republicans who voted for the bill are well aware of Gov. Pawlenty's veto threat and that they don't have the votes to override. Republican Denny McNamara of Hastings says he's under no illusion that the gas tax will be raised this year.

"The reality is: it's going to get a governor's veto, but we've raised the awareness level of what we need. We need more money for transportation. Our suburban communities are just starving for some money," says McNamara.

DFL leaders were quick to pounce on the rift between some Republican lawmakers and Republican Gov. Pawlenty on the issue. House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul says Pawlenty was unwilling to work with Democrats the first two years of his term, when Republicans controlled the House by a wide margin.

But Democrats picked up 13 seats last November, and Entenza says the slim one-seat Republican majority can't always deliver for the governor now.

"The governor can't hide behind a large Republican majority in the House. The governor can't hide behind a pledge to a special interest, and now the governor's going to have to engage in some real compromise and real debate," according to Entenza.

Gov. Pawlenty appears unlikely to compromise on the gas tax, saying he will only consider a bill that would put the issue on the ballot for voters to decide.

His chief of staff, Dan McElroy, said he can't imagine any circumstances under which Pawlenty would sign the bill that passed the House.

"We still think the governor's proposal for transportation is the best one," he says.

Pawlenty's plan would borrow money for road projects. DFLers say Pawlenty boxed himself into a corner by signing as a candidate a "no new taxes" pledge sponsored by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. The group's president, David Strom, says that's ludicrous.

"It's not about the pledge. It's about the fact that this is just bad policy. We're looking at $2 a gallon gas right now. I don't think anyone's really excited about the prospect of seeing those gas prices go up another 10 cents a gallon," says Strom.

The Senate hasn't passed a transportation package yet, and there's no guarantee it will pass a gas tax. But if the proposal lands on the governor's desk, lawmakers are divided on how a gubernatorial veto plays to the public.

Senate Republican leader Dick Day of Owatonna says voters won't blame the governor for vetoing a dime a gallon increase, since Pawlenty already pushed through a major transportation package.

"Even next year, you know, the roads are going to be all tore up, we're going to finish highway 100 and 494 and 694, in my area, we got an infusion of $65 million," according to Day.

Senate DFL Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar disagrees, saying if the Senate sends a gas tax to Pawlenty, he would be wise to let it go into effect.

"If he does walk away from this, he walks away from the transportation and transit community, and there are well over 100 organizations that want investments in our infrastructure. And he's going to have to take his no-new-tax pledge now and put it in the wastebasket," he says.

Johnson says the Senate will debate transportation funding as early as Monday - one week before the deadline for the Legislature to adjourn.

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