Oberstar's gas tax may hit some political potholes

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 11, 2007 - 12:17 AM

Iron Range Rep. Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, wants a 5-cent-a-gallon increase to shore up the nation's bridges. But his long-sought proposal will be a tough sell in Washington.

WASHINGTON - It's the cash, not the corrosion.

Lawmakers returning to Washington next month aren't likely to disagree that the nation's aging roads and bridges need some expensive TLC. The fight will be over the money to pay for it.

Driving the debate will be Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, the powerful House Transportation Committee chairman who has suggested a temporary 5-cent-a-gallon gas tax for a national reconstruction program.

But if Oberstar's idea were a car, it would be headed for some familiar political potholes.

President Bush, championing the Republican Party's opposition to new taxes, has assailed Oberstar's idea, saying Congress should reorder its spending priorities first.

Some Democrats appear no more eager to climb on board what could be seen as a preelection-year tax vehicle to fund a part of government renowned for pork-barrel spending.

In fact, despite Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision to back a gas tax hike on the state level, the idea of a federal increase has failed to gain much traction with Oberstar's Minnesota colleagues in Congress.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman suggested that addressing the nation's infrastructure is not a question of money, but of making it a priority. "I'm not yet prepared to accept a gas tax increase as the solution," he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, suggested other remedies first. "We should look at closing lucrative loopholes for the big oil companies and rolling back the Bush tax cuts for people making over $336,000 per year before adding another burden on the middle class," she said.

Some analysts say it is far from clear that Oberstar, counting on the emotion of the Interstate 35W bridge tragedy, will get the new highway money he has so long sought.

"The senior leaders of the Transportation Committee have been dreaming about raising the gas tax for years," said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit government watchdog group in Washington.

Ashdown, who coined the phrase "Bridge to Nowhere" two years ago to deride the now-infamous $223 million bridge proposal for Alaska's barren Gravina Island, remains a skeptic. "I get really nervous when lawmakers say spend, spend, spend, and we'll all be OK," he said.

Some interested parties, such as T. Peter Ruane of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, have lauded Oberstar's plan as a break from "business as usual."

The American Society of Civil Engineers has also endorsed Oberstar's plan.

But others, like oil industry spokesman Frank Maisano, take note of the popular opposition -- including a recent Survey USA and KSTP-TV poll showing 57 percent of Minnesotans opposed.

"As you continue to put additional burdens on consumers, they tend not to be interested in the cost of those burdens," Maisano said.

Not 'manna from heaven'

Given the tenor of the criticism so far, it's clear Oberstar will have to overcome his committee's legacy of pet projects -- from the "Bridges to Nowhere" to the growing network of bike trails in Oberstar's northern Minnesota district, part of $250 million in earmarks he obtained in the 2005 transportation bill.

Not surprisingly, one of Oberstar's strongest allies could be Alaska Republican Don Young, the former Transportation Committee chairman who earmarked $1 billion worth of transportation spending for Alaska in 2005.

"May the sky fall on me," Young said last week in announcing his support for a possible tax hike for roads and bridges.

But Bush took direct aim at the committee:

"From my perspective, the way it seems to have worked is that each member on that committee gets to set his or her own priority first, and then whatever is left over is spent through a funding formula," Bush said.

Oberstar argues that his proposal would use the new money -- about $25 billion over three years -- only for the 6,175 structurally deficient bridges in the national highway system. It would specifically prohibit congressional or administration earmarks.

"The president is sticking his head in the sand and hoping things will just work out," Oberstar said. "We need to move quickly to address these problems. They aren't going to fix themselves. The money isn't going to fall from the sky like manna from heaven."

'Don't make me vote on this'

With the president and many other Republicans opposed, some observers say it is unlikely that Democrats will want to press a close, party-line vote to increase the federal fuel tax, which has stood at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993.

"If the president isn't interested, it has almost zero chance of passing," said David Keating, executive director of the small-government group Club for Growth.

One reason, Keating said, is that Democrats don't want to hand an election-year issue to Republicans. "The idea of Congress passing higher gas prices on motorists -- I don't think anyone's going to be interested," he said. "And any Democrat in a vulnerable district is going to think 'Please, guys, don't make me vote on this.' "

One example is freshman Democrat Tim Walz, whose rural Minnesota constituents could be hit hard by higher gas prices. Walz, considered a top legislative target for Republicans next year, has taken no position on Oberstar's proposal so far.

But Walz is hardly alone in reserving judgment in the early going. Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican who, like Walz, positions himself as a moderate, said he is "reviewing the proposal."

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