"We've got a long way to go from five cents, but at least the governor is making the move in the right direction," said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Wednesday he would support up to a nickel increase in Minnesota's gas tax if he and DFL legislative leaders can reach agreement on a limited agenda for a special session.
Since the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge on Aug. 1, Pawlenty has said he would consider a "reasonable" gas tax hike to help fund road and bridge improvements, and would prefer that it be temporary and at least partly offset by reductions in other taxes.
Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, called the prospect of a five-cent increase -- expected to raise about $150 million per year -- a positive move.
'In the right direction'
"We've got a long way to go from five cents, but at least the governor is making the move in the right direction," Murphy said. "I think that the more people find out what the depth and breadth of this problem is, they're going to be more willing to listen."
Murphy said that a nickel increase falls short because "five cents raises $150 million and we have over a $3 billion underfunding in transportation a year."
Still, he said, Pawlenty is showing courage.
"I've got to give the governor some kudos because that was an incredibly difficult thing for him to do. He's for all these years had this 'No new taxes' pledge, and for him to stand up and say, 'Maybe a nickel is not that outrageous,' is a huge step in the right direction."
Murphy said that state highways, which represent only about 18 percent of all the roads in Minnesota, are $1 billion behind in funding, and that that amount is needed every year for a 10-year construction cycle. Township roads, county roads, city streets and transit add another $700 million to $1.5 billion, he said, and rural Minnesota needs $710 million worth of bridge improvements.
Murphy said a long-term comprehensive plan should include increases in the gas tax, in license tabs, and maybe a wheelage tax and a metrowide or statewide sales tax initiative.
Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, said the gas tax discussion is only one part of the agenda Pawlenty believes "would be beneficial" in a special session. McClung listed a bonding bill to fund "infrastructure related to flood recovery and for road and bridge safety," cash appropriations for flood relief, a property tax relief measure and "a comprehensive transportation package" that could include a gas tax increase along with bonding.
But the governor thinks the broad transportation package could be postponed in favor of making progress on emergency needs, McClung said.
Murphy said Pawlenty could help sway public opinion on the gas tax, which has been unpopular.
"All I know is that 500 souls get lost on our roads every year here in Minnesota, and nationally, it's thousands of people who die on our roads," he said. "And we could clearly, clearly save some of those people if we had better infrastructure and more law enforcement out on the roads."
Doug Tice contributed to this report. Joy Powell 612-673-7750