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Facing opposition from their governor to higher gasoline taxes, DFLers scrambled Wednesday to retool a package of funding for highways and transit.
Senate and House leaders backed away from raising transportation taxes after Gov. Mark Dayton, a fellow Democrat, made it clear that he wouldn’t support raising the gas tax by 7½ cents a gallon.
“The governor believes the gas tax proposal would put an undue burden on the middle class,” said Bob Hume, Dayton’s deputy chief of staff. “It also isn’t a large enough solution to the statewide transportation needs that Minnesota is facing. It has little-to-no support outside the walls of the Capitol.”
Dayton’s office repeated his support for raising sales taxes in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area for light-rail and bus transit.
“It has support both inside the Legislature and with the public,” Hume said.
But his opposition to raising the gas tax for state highways has raised doubts among DFLers about the prospects of passing higher sales taxes for metro transit.
Wednesday night, the chairman of the House transportation committee canceled a hearing on a bill that called for higher metro transit taxes.
Raising transportation taxes is “difficult to do if it’s not statewide in nature,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. Moving forward with only a metro transit sales increase would be a “piecemeal” approach to transportation funding, he said.
Hornstein said he expects to introduce a transportation bill Thursday that resembles one in the Senate, which doesn’t have any gas or sales tax increases for transit or highways. He left open the possibility of reviving a sales tax proposal for transit later in the session, but added, “We definitely will not have a gas tax.”
“Things have really changed radically in the last 24 to 48 hours,” he said. “We envisioned a comprehensive package, and the shifting landscape with the governor on the gas tax affected everything.”
House DFLers had been considering a 7½ cents increase in the gas tax.
Dayton said in December that he didn’t support a gas tax hike “at this time,” but didn’t rule out eventually supporting one. He said his transportation commissioner, Charlie Zelle, might need to sell the need for increased taxes to fund highways.
Hornstein said he met with the governor and “he wants to be sure the public is with us. It was helpful to know the clarity of this position.”
He said he and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, were surprised by the degree of Dayton’s opposition to the gas tax hike. “We knew he had concerns, but we didn’t know that his concerns were this significant,” Hornstein said.
Transit tax doubts
Scott County Commissioner Jon Ulrich expressed surprise Wednesday to hear about DFLers’ second thoughts on increasing the sales tax for transit. With DFLers in the governor’s office and controlling the Legislature, “We were sort of working on the assumption this would happen for sure,” Ulrich said.
A version favored by Hornstein would have raised sales taxes from a quarter-cent to three-quarters of a cent in Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Dakota and Washington counties. A three-quarter cent sales tax would have been imposed for the first time in Carver and Scott counties.
Dayton wants to impose a quarter-cent sales tax for the first time in Carver and Scott counties and to double the tax to a half cent in the other five counties.
Scott County wants assurance it will have more voice in how money raised by any transit sales tax is spent and has complained that the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Twin Cities transit, often doesn’t heed the wishes of local officials.