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.

"If someone gets in the way," he said, "they should be prepared to get steamrolled."

Molnau defends department

But even as Pawlenty was meeting with House and Senate leaders on Friday afternoon to talk over the possibility of a bonding/gas tax agreement, his lieutenant governor, Carol Molnau, appeared to remain opposed.

Molnau, who also serves as transportation commissioner, held her first news conference since returning from China on Thursday night, offering a defiant and occasionally angry defense of her department.

On a gas tax, she said, "we do need to look for resources we can count on long term." But in order to solve the problem, she said, "we would have to raise gas taxes 34 or 35 cents a gallon. I don't think the motoring public can sustain that."

Molnau herself is likely to come under renewed scrutiny in the coming months. Her dogged opposition to expanded transit and gas tax increases has earned her few friends among the DFL-led House and Senate.

Molnau, who has served as transportation commissioner since 2003, was not confirmed the first time until May 2004 because of DFL opposition and then only on a 38-28 vote. At the time Murphy complained of her opposition to transit and said she had shown "a lack of commitment to work towards a serious solution to our funding problems."

This year, the first of Pawlenty's new term, Murphy said he would not hold confirmation hearings on Molnau because she probably would have been rejected, exacerbating the existing divisions in the Senate on transportation issues. A commissioner may continue to serve without confirmation unless rejected by the Senate.

Asked if that issue could surface in a special session, Murphy said, "that's a discussion for another day."

Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, who had supported a five-cent-per-gallon increase, said the collapse had triggered enough concerns among Minnesotans about overall road and bridge safety that "a gas tax is near certain. We need something to catch up to the backlog.

"Minnesotans just really expect us to come up with thoughtful, bipartisan quick product. We need to deliver."

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