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Gas-tax veto unleashes rhetoric at Capitol
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After Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the gas-tax increase, DFLers held a news conference with props criticizing the action. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Less than 24 hours after a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase was endorsed by the DFL-controlled Senate, Gov. Tim Pawlenty uncapped his pen and made good on his promise to veto the package. The governor's actions touched off a round of recriminations over transportation policy and the larger budget debate being waged in the final days of the 2005 legislative session.

St. Paul, Minn. — In an unusual public veto ceremony, Gov. Pawlenty restated his long-held opposition to raising state taxes, and said his veto should come as a surprise to no one.

"I have warned them and told them this would happen. But rather than working on bill that could pass and be accomplished, they want to spend time and resources and energy -- wasting it, I might add -- on this exercise to make a political point when they could be working on a bill that might actually be signed into law," he said.

Pawlenty took particular aim at the bill's proposed dime-a-gallon hike in the current 20 cent gas tax. But he says the bill was also riddled with technical flaws and drafting errors. All told, the transportation package would have provided almost $7.5 billion over the next 10 years to roads, bridges and mass transit.

It was passed by the DFL-controlled Senate on Wednesday after a group of maverick Republicans defied GOP leaders in the House and helped shepherd it through that body a week earlier.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson predicted that the governor would pay a price for his veto, and returned the charge of partisan gamesmanship.

"I think the governor has miscalculated this political decision. And the reason I say that, many of his past supporters have called, and they are irritated. Governor Roadblock, take down the barriers! Start to compromise!" Johnson said.

One piece of the bill is expected to escape the veto because it proposes a constitutional amendment, an area over which governors don't have jurisdiction. The provision would let voters decide whether to fully dedicate the motor vehicle sales tax -- known as the MVST -- to road and transit improvements.

Pawlenty says that idea was the cornerstone of his own transportation plan and its survival provides a silver lining of sorts.

Carolyn Jones of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce agrees. Jones says the Chamber would actually support a gas tax at half the level proposed in the vetoed bill but felt it was unproductive to challenge the governor on that issue.

"I think there are opportunities out there, you know, whether it's bonding, the MVST that now will become law, and, you know, looking at some other creative ways of maybe finding a new fee or a definition of a fee or tax to try and put that towards some new revenue," she said.

On that last point, there also appears to be some wiggle room. The vetoed bill would have raised vehicle license tab fees, a move that Pawlenty had previously suggested he would oppose. But he now says he would at least consider raising those fees if he can be persuaded they don't meet his definition of a tax. In fact, many of the GOP lawmakers who applauded his veto support a tab fee increase.

The veto throws the debate back to lawmakers, although the bill didn't pass either the House or the Senate with enough votes to sustain an override. Nonetheless, a new bill of some sort is necessary simply to fund the State Patrol and other administrative functions.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says he hopes the veto will encourage lawmakers to find a middle ground.

"My hope is that in the next three, four days of the legislative session we will go back to the table and we will put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. And we'll have a package that moves us ahead," according to Sviggum.

But the rhetoric from both sides isn't hopeful. Sviggum and Pawlenty have both accused Johnson of being unwilling to cooperate. Johnson suggested that there's little point in talking to the governor while he maintains his no-new-taxes stance.

"And each and every time it's always, 'It's going to be my budget, no more. That's the way it's going to be.' And the last time I checked there were three entities involved: the House of Representatives, the Senate and the governor," he said.

The Legislature is required to adjourn on Monday. So far, final agreement has been reached on only the higher education funding bill. Seven others, including transportation, remain under discussion, most of them with substantial differences unresolved.