Gas tax increase appears certain

  • Article by: PATRICIA LOPEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2007 - 9:55 PM

Pawlenty likely to call a special session to deal with the bridge collapse and seek funds to rebuild.

A special session to deal with the aftermath of the bridge collapse is now likely and is almost certain to produce a gas tax increase, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said through a spokesman Friday. The funding would help whittle down the state's massive $1 billion-a-year backlog in road and bridge construction and maintenance.

"The governor will work with legislators on a comprehensive and long-term approach," said Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung. "We would expect that to include some of the governor's ideas and some of the Legislature's ideas and under those circumstances, a gas tax could be included."

Pawlenty's turnaround shows how much the political landscape had changed just 48 hours after Wednesday night's Interstate 35W bridge collapse that took at least five lives and violently shook Minnesotans' sense of safety.

"Yes, it's accurate to describe this as a breaking of the [no-tax] pledge," McClung said.

"But these are extraordinary circumstances. The governor feels we need to come together and work as aggressively as we can to address these issues.

"He thinks that's the right thing for our state."

In May, Pawlenty vetoed a transportation bill that included a 7.5- cent-per-gallon gasoline tax hike, calling the increase "an unnecessary and onerous burden."

That bill also included a mandate for yearly inspection of state bridges, which under current law must be inspected at least every two years. DFLers' attempt to override the veto failed.

Pawlenty's opposition to a gasoline tax increase was long-standing and adamant. In 2005 he also vetoed a gas tax increase, asking of DFLers, "How dumb can they be?" Earlier this year he said DFLers "have simply been obsessed" with a gas tax.

But by Friday, Republican opposition appeared to be melting away, with even House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, tempering his previously fiery anti-tax rhetoric. In May, Seifert derided the gas tax proposal as a "joke" and a "pocket-picking mechanism," but in a Friday interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Seifert said he was "open-minded" about a gas tax increase to fund road and bridge improvements.

The need for more funding "is there," Seifert said on Friday. "I'm not going to close the door on anything."

Agenda could expand

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said a special session would not occur before Labor Day, but that when it does, "the agenda will not be pre-determined."

That means that elements of the Legislature's major tax bill, which died before it could be voted on in the waning moments of the 2007 session, could also be revived.

Kelliher said the session should be short, "but we have a large and very serious case of deferring some basic maintenance and of not keeping up with growth in our state."

McClung said that one likely option is to couple the Legislature's gas tax proposal with Pawlenty's proposal to bond for major road improvements. In the last session Pawlenty proposed $1.7 billion in bonds over 10 years to fund road and bridge projects.

Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said that he would be amenable to such an option.

"I think people are clamoring for us to do something about this," Murphy said. "Our system is underfunded. I hate to tap taxpayers, but we haven't had real money in the system since 1988." That's the last time gas taxes, now at 20 cents per gallon, were increased.

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