Gov. Pawlenty faces political risks in changing his stance, experts say, but standing pat would be hazardous, too.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty's startling turnaround on a gas-tax increase in the wake of the bridge collapse is filled with political risk.
He has crossed his most fervent political allies in the no-new-taxes world and handed DFLers a chance to push through ambitious tax-and-spending plans that he and legislative Republicans fought back just a few months ago.
But Pawlenty, who has managed similar turnarounds on light rail, tobacco fees and stadiums -- and was even considering a gas-tax hike in exchange for tax cuts elsewhere before the collapse -- now says the time has come to "extend an olive branch" at the risk of being labeled a turncoat on his signature issue.
"Will [a gas tax] be immediately popular or well-received?" Pawlenty said Tuesday. "No."
Results of a poll taken after the bridge collapse were released Tuesday by Survey USA and KSTP-TV. They show that 57 percent of Minnesotans still oppose a tax increase.
But with Pawlenty on many lists of politicians with national potential, conservatives recognize that his choices may be limited in the aftermath of a stunning disaster.
"He is faced with a situation which I think requires some drastic action," said Paul Weyrich, a well-known socially conservative political activist. "None of us cares for higher taxes, but social conservatives would tend to be more forgiving of a governor with a critical situation on his hands."
However, Weyrich said, "the anti-tax people will not understand. They will try to drive him out of consideration for vice president or anything else."
Larry Sabato, a national political analyst and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, sees pluses and minuses for Pawlenty.
"On the plus side, he has an argument that's not available to any other Republican right now," Sabato said. "This could serve to moderate him, someone who says, 'I'm a strong anti- taxer but there are disasters that are exceptions.' Most people would say that's reasonable."
Sabato notes that most Americans were introduced to Pawlenty for the first time last week and saw a resolute, articulate young governor who appeared willing to do what was necessary to cope with a tragedy. In the SurveyUSA poll, 75 percent said they approved of the way that Pawlenty has handled the disaster.
"He has come across well so far," Sabato said. "But anti-taxers still have a lot of sway within the party." If he concedes too much, Sabato said, "at some point he ceases to be viable in the Republican Party."
For some, Pawlenty has already crossed that line.
David Strom, president of the Minnesota Free Market Institute, an arm of the Minnesota Taxpayers League, said that Pawlenty "panicked" and that his signaled acceptance of a gas-tax increase "is a serious mistake."
By acting before any reports have determined fault, Strom said, "it looks like he's saying 'I was wrong, and they [DFLers] were right."
But Weyrich said there could be an even greater danger for Pawlenty in holding an anti-tax line. "If he were so dogmatic that even under these circumstances he said, 'I don't care, I'm never going to raise taxes,' and then something else happened ..." Weyrich said, "well, you can imagine."
Still, there are those who harbor some disappointment at Pawlenty's about-face.
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, who labored to hold his tiny caucus together against a gas- tax increase last session, maintained Tuesday that "there are other places to get money before taxes."
A change already in the works
However much Republicans complain, the fact is that a gas-tax increase has quietly been in the works for much of the summer.
Pawlenty on Tuesday said he had been talking with key legislators since June about increasing the gas tax in exchange for lowering some other tax. That would have increased transportation funding without raising the overall tax burden.
Since the collapse, Pawlenty has shelved any notion of an exchange, saying simply that "I'm probably the biggest proponent against taxes, but we have an extraordinary crisis situation.
"The bottom line is, all of us -- here in Minnesota, Republicans, Democrats, nationally -- know and have known for years that we need more resources," he said, "Someone needs to break the logjam."