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Minnesotans will see their first state gas tax increase in 20 years as part of an ambitious $6.6 billion transportation plan that promised better roads and bridges and was nudged into law after the historic override of a governor's veto.
With Monday's override, the first of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the DFL-controlled Legislature passed a sweeping set of tax increases that broke a longtime partisan logjam over transportation funding. After the vote was announced in the House, sign-waving construction workers outside the chamber cheered. Later, a politically jolted Pawlenty called the plan "ridiculous."
Six House Republicans joined the DFL majority in the 91-41 vote, one vote more than the two-thirds majority needed and two more than the bill got Thursday. The action followed a weekend in which a small group of legislators, mostly Republican, were under intense pressure. Two DFLers who had voted against the bill last week also supported the override Monday.
The Senate vote was 47-20, the same as when the bill passed on Thursday.
After the House vote, GOP lawmakers wrangled over whether those who voted for the bill would face political recriminations and outright attempts to oust them from office.
"I'm assuming I'll have several people running against me for the Republican nomination," said Rep. Kathy Tingelstad, R-Andover, who voted for the bill Thursday and then for the override, two days after her Republican endorsement for reelection was postponed because of her support for the proposal. She said that despite facing what she called her toughest vote in her 12 years in the Legislature, she did "what's right" and that "I'll sleep good tonight."
Supporters of the bill said the vote was a far-reaching rebuff of the anti-tax lobbyists who had stifled progress in Minnesota on a host of spending issues as well as a particularly stinging setback for the governor, who is a staunch opponent of new taxes. Critics, however, denounced the bill's tax increases and talked of their coming at a time of economic difficulty.
Some observers were unsure how Monday's results would affect nontransportation issues, especially with a new, more somber state budget forecast expected Thursday. They also said Pawlenty's political standing might be dented only momentarily.
Throughout the day, DFLers and some Republicans tried to link the legislation to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, in which 13 people died and more than 100 were injured in August.
"There is no relationship between the greatest tax increase in [modern] Minnesota history and the tragedy that occurred last summer," said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano.
Rep. Shelley Madore, DFL-Apple Valley, disagreed. "The bridge went down on August 1, and a gentleman from my district died," she said. "If you're asking me, is his life worth a nickel a gallon [state gas tax increase, as the plan calls for], I'm telling you it is."
Pawlenty, who was at a governors conference in Washington on Monday, was clearly frustrated with the results as he spoke to reporters by telephone. He said the legislation was "ridiculous in scope and in magnitude," and added that "I am more than happy to say this is a DFL product and a DFL result."
"It's a whole basket, a whole bucket of tax increases," he said.
Sizing up vetoes and overrides
A report by the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota showed that, over the past 70 years, only two governors have made as many vetoes as Pawlenty's 37. And since 1939, only 14 of 447 gubernatorial vetoes have been overridden, with 12 overrides coming against Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura, who had almost no party members in the Legislature.
"I think today we all knew we were making history," said Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud.
The legislation would increase the state gas tax 5 1/2 cents by fall and then by up to another 3 cents; 3 1/2 cents of the 8 1/2 cents would be in place until bonds authorized under the plan are retired.
It also will provide a $25 income-tax credit for low-income Minnesotans to ease the effect of the gas tax increase.
Under another provision, a quarter-cent sales tax increase would occur in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area without a referendum, with all proceeds going to transit projects. The sales tax needs action by the county boards.
The sales tax would raise an estimated $1.1 billion over 10 years. In Hennepin County, the state's most populous, it would generate more than half of that amount, or $606 million. Last year, Hennepin County residents began paying a 0.15 percentage point sales tax, approved without a referendum, to help fund a stadium for the Minnesota Twins.
Other counties could raise their sales tax by up to 0.5 percentage points for specific transportation projects, but referendums would be required.
The legislation also will increase license tab fees on vehicles, particularly luxury cars; hire 40 state troopers, and help repair the Minnesota Department of Transportation's headquarters in St. Paul. The tab fee increase will not affect vehicles previously registered in Minnesota.
After the Senate voted to join the House in the override, Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, the most vocal advocate for raising gasoline taxes, credited support from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, farm groups and those Republican legislators "who chose safety over party politics."
"Everything's wonderful," Dan Erhart, an Anoka County commissioner and commuter rail advocate, said after the veto override. He said that while the override damaged Pawlenty, "I wouldn't want to be a Republican and not help relieve the [traffic] congestion problem this session."
Waiting for payback
Some Republicans who voted for the legislation said they were expecting to pay politically. One of them, Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, said GOP leaders threatened to take away media privileges, staff members and research resources should he oppose the governor. Erhardt called them "a bunch of bullies" and, after casting his vote Monday, voiced concern about his reelection. "I'm worried about it, but what can I do?" he said.
Before Monday's vote, state Republican Party chairman Ron Carey released a weekend poll conducted in three House districts represented by Republicans who supported the transportation bill. He said the survey showed voters did not want the legislation. He said the results showed that voters did not view transportation as a top priority and opposed the DFL plan by almost 2 to 1.
At least two of the dissenting Republicans will be leaving leadership posts on committees. Rep. Rod Hamilton, of Mountain Lake, said he voluntarily resigned as the lead Republican on the House Agriculture Committee. Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport, said he was asked to step down as the lead Republican on the House K-12 Finance Committee.
"I was told that if I don't fall in line, this is what's going to happen," Heidgerken said. "I had to weigh it. Is this a good bill? Yes it is. We sat for 20 years and did nothing."
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said she would not permit punishing dissident Republican members. "If there gets to be a situation where minority members of the House are stripped of services to serve their constituents, I will not stand for that," she said.
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, was cautious about saying whether the override would hurt Pawlenty and empower DFLers. "Does it hurt the governor? That's tough to tell right now," he said.
Seifert said the vote did not reflect a split within the caucus but acknowledged he is not going to actively support the dissenting members' reelection bids. "People are reading into an awful lot about this one bill. This has been a pressure-cooker issue," he said. "This is a one-time deal and an only-time deal."