Maybe it’s the name. Rather than squabbling over whether to raise the gas tax for the sake of state roads and bridges, maybe the Legislature should consider enacting a “highway improvement user fee.”

Don’t scoff. It wasn’t long ago that rechristening a cigarette tax as a “health impact fee” helped end a partial government shutdown. And Minnesotans are pretty good at paying for what they use (or so it sounded, listening to Minnesota Public Radio’s pledge drive last week).

What’s more, “user fee” aptly describes the 28.5 cents added to the price of every gallon of motor fuel sold in Minnesota. As the state Constitution has required since 1924, that addition is deposited in the Highway User Tax Distribution Fund, from which it flows to road and bridge upkeep and nothing more.

Judging from the depth of House Republican resistance to a gas-tax increase, you’d think it flowed into the Government Waste, Fraud and Abuse Fund. And judging from some DFLers’ insistence on raising the per-gallon tax, you’d think it’s the only way to pay for transportation infrastructure. (It’s not. More on that in a moment.)

An overwrought gas-tax argument is at the heart of Minnesota’s difficulty keeping highways smooth, bridges safe and transit sufficient to meet rising demand. The quarrel showed no sign of easing last week as a May 23 adjournment deadline loomed. On Friday, House Republican leaders felt compelled to summon reporters to say one more time that they don’t want to raise the gas tax.

One might chalk up that attitude to Republican aversion to all taxes, plus a sense that the national party is watching. That sense may have infected Speaker Kurt Daudt last month when he told a GOP audience that funding transportation improvements from the general fund would “start to starve out the general fund … which is a really good thing.” Somewhere, Grover Norquist was sitting and grinning in his government-drowning bathtub.

Yet Republican governors and legislatures in South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska all raised their states’ gas taxes in 2015. If Minnesota Republicans joined them, they’d have plenty of regional cover.

My sloppy sample of House GOP views last week detected more than ideology in their thinking. They note that the gas tax falls disproportionately on the poor. Fuel-efficient vehicles and inflation make it a lagging revenue source. And there’s geography: Their caucus is composed entirely of suburban and Greater Minnesota representatives. Their constituents drive — a lot.

“Everything we do in my district involves driving,” said Rep. Dan Fabian, whose northwestern base borders North Dakota, Minnesota’s only neighboring state with a lower per-gallon tax. He worries about worsening the competitive disadvantage his district’s service stations face.

Outstate legislators would pay a political price for a gas tax hike, Republicans insisted. “I hear about this from my constituents all the time,” said Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne. Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, cited a February 2015 KSTP-TV poll that found 75 percent support for a Republican transportation plan that omits a gas-tax increase.

A counterpoint to that poll arrived at the Capitol last week, in the form of two dozen local officials representing the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. They came to plead for action on bonding, local government aid and transportation, and to report that anti-gas-tax sentiment eased as potholes blossomed this spring.

“We’ve seen the corner getting turned on the gas tax,” said Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski. “There’s a lot of interest in that. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s better than anything else that anyone is coming up with at this point.”

For example, Smiglewski said, a GOP legislator mentioned toll roads at a May 6 regional meeting about Hwy. 212. The idea didn’t float. “Why don’t you use the funding mechanism you’ve got?” asked Kyle Kottke of Kottke Trucking in Buffalo Lake.

Better yet, why not use a little bit of all the mechanisms available to pay for better transportation infrastructure? There are alternatives to a gas tax — license-tab fees; taxes on motor-vehicle sales, rental and/or leasing, and a dip in the general fund among them. None of them is painless. Each carries a downside that is arguably no better or worse than a gas-tax increase, if one judges by measures other than political impact.

Use all those tools, and legislators can go easy on a gas-tax increase and still produce a respectable transportation bill. But there’s good reason not to omit the gas tax entirely. It’s the one funding tool that’s related to the amount of pavement-pounding one does. It honors the Minnesota sense that one should pay for what one uses. It’s a “highway improvement user fee.”

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.