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Ignoring veto threat, Senate approves dime gas-tax hike
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DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says he thinks Gov.Pawlenty can be prevailed upon to change his mind on the gas tax bill. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
A 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase is on its way to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's desk despite the governor's assurances that he will veto the bill. On Wednesday the DFL-controlled Senate voted 36-to-31 to adopt a transportation package that was passed last week in the GOP-run House. Overall, the package would raise nearly $7.5 billion during the next 10 years to invest in roads, bridges and public transit.

St. Paul, Minn. — Of the state's eight major budget bills, transportation is now the only one to pass both houses and head for Governor Pawlenty's desk. But it's not likely to get much further than that. Pawlenty has restated his intention to veto the bill, primarily because of the ten-cent gas tax hike.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, however, says he thinks Pawlenty can be prevailed upon to change his mind.

"Governor, this is a referendum on your leadership. Not on your political agenda, on the leadership of this state. That's what this is about," he said.

The bill passed in the Senate on a straight party-line vote with DFLers and the Legislature's lone independent in support. It originated, however, on the House side, where 10 Republicans defied Pawlenty and GOP leadership first to propose the gas tax increase and then to side with Democrats in passing it.

The current gas tax stands at 20 cents per gallon and hasn't been increased since 1988. DFLer Steve Murphy of Red Wing, who chairs the Senate Transportation Finance Division, said the House Republican mavericks show the stars have finally aligned for a major spending boost on highway and public transit.

"I'm almost embarrassed that the House passed this increase before we did. But they did. And they showed an unbelievable amount of political courage," Murphy said.

Murphy had actually crafted a separate Senate package, but agreed to replace it with the more generous House bill when it emerged. The plan now headed for the governor's desk not only boosts the gas tax, it also raises license tab registration fees, allows counties to impose their own $20 surcharge on cars, and dedicates a portion of the existing state sales tax to public transportation projects in the metro area. That's prompted the state Republican Party to begin running radio ads in greater Minnesota accusing Democrats of taxing rural residents to pay for Twin Cities infrastructure.

"GOP AD: Ten cents means the average family will pay $120 more per year. Higher license plate fees and other tax increases mean almost $2,300 over 10 years. For what?" the ad says.

The ad doesn't note the Republican support for many of those same provisions. And although not all Republicans voted for the precise bill that's now headed to Pawlenty, a substantial number nevertheless support a gas tax increase at some level.

That includes Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum, Senate Minority Leader Dick Day and Sen. Mark Ourada of Buffalo. Ourada says Senate Democrats are only playing political games by sending legislation to the governor that will surely be vetoed. But Ourada himself was a co-sponsor of the original Senate transportation bill which included a seven cent gas tax hike. He says Senate Democrats should trim their appetites a bit, but that the governor should also show some flexibility.

"I'm disappointed in the governor's stance. I mean, I would like to see the governor soften on that, I'll be honest about that. You know, I still think the gas tax is going to be a big workhorse for our system for several decades to come. And so I think that's got to be part of the equation," he said.

Pawlenty, however, has steadfastly opposed a gas tax hike unless it it comes in the form of a constitutional amendment that would be subject to voter approval. Pawlenty has also proposed constitutionally dedicating the sales tax paid on car purchases to roads and transit. That idea, actually, is contained in the bill which he's about to veto. But since governors aren't allowed to veto potential constitutional amendments, Pawlenty spokesman

Brian McClung says it will survive the veto pen.

"That was the cornerstone of Gov. Pawlenty's transportation package that he unveiled in December. And that will move forward. That's a good start towards getting a jump on our road projects," he said.

The dedicated motor vehicle sales tax would shift about $2.5 billion to transportation over 10 years, but it's not a net increase in overall money to the state. It would come from funds that would otherwise have been used for other state needs, including education, health care or public safety.