Gas tax no longer hot issue

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 15, 2008 - 1:14 AM

The tax was supposed to spell defeat for outer suburban DFLers this fall. But economic worries and falling gas prices have changed that.

When the Legislature adjourned last spring after angry battles over the gas tax, Republican lawmakers from the southern suburbs predicted that their Democratic colleagues would be punished this fall.

The second phase of the tax hike, passed over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto, would be enacted in October, they said, just in time to remind voters of the dirty deed. And the election would become a referendum on the decision by Democrats and a handful of Republicans to override the veto.

Today, all sides agree, things have changed.

None of the websites of south-metro Republicans challenging the most vulnerable Democratic officeholders -- those still in their first term in office -- trumpets the gas tax as an issue. And candidates on both sides agree that it has faded.

"Some people do remember the gas tax," said Tim Rud, the Republican nominee in the district stretching westward toward Scott County from Northfield. "But it is maybe not quite the issue it was."

One big reason: The price of gas, once predicted to be rising by now toward or past the $5 mark, has instead come down. That has meant that, despite the hike, "gas is cheaper today than it was in May," said Shelley Madore, a freshman Democrat from Apple Valley. "People understand that an extra three cents [a gallon] won't make or break them."

At the same time, even though it's partly a coincidence, the southern suburbs are getting a massive infusion of transportation money that is kick-starting tangible improvements.

"I am not hearing 'gas tax' at the doorstep," said DFL freshman Will Morgan of Burnsville. "What I am hearing is a positive response to the fact that we've been able to leverage some federal dollars and really help 35W, Cedar Avenue, add additional lanes, use 'diamond lanes' better by allowing single drivers the chance to pay a toll at rush hour -- this is getting a very positive response from folks, and it's all happening in the next year or two."

On top of that, candidates agree, concern has shifted. Transportation, long the metro area's top concern in Metropolitan Council surveys, is falling back compared to the economy.

"The biggest thing we are hearing, out door-knocking, is the economy," said Ron Hill, campaign manager for Republican hopeful Todd Johnson, stricken in the past couple of weeks by a recurrence of cancer but sticking with his campaign to unseat Morgan.

"There's a grave concern with declines in home values, with the fact that, more likely than not, people won't be seeing increases in pay or benefits in the near future, the state of retirement funds, 401(k)s. ... People are looking for something to remove the panic in the streets right now."

So the ground has shifted toward solutions: What can legislators do, and what would the two parties do differently, to earn votes?

For DFLer Madore, the answer is to respond to the needs that are out there.

"Many times as I'm knocking on doors, I'm talking to people losing their jobs," she said. "One man lost three jobs this year. They don't want to hear, 'your taxes are what are killing you.' They want to not be kicked out of their house. Adjustable rate mortgages are coming due, health insurance premiums are rising, assuming they can keep family coverage at all. They can't save money; they're draining their 401(k)s. So tax talk, abortion talk, is not what I'm hearing right now."

But Republicans are talking taxes.

"We need to take away the obstacles to getting the economy back on track," Hill said. "Right now, increasing spending by any layer of government is difficult. Increasing taxes is really difficult."

For his part, Morgan is one candidate who declines to be drawn into those partisan arguments, emphasizing instead what both parties already have done together.

"Bipartisan health care reform will make a real long-term difference in the ability of small businesses to grow jobs," he said. "We had the Chamber of Commerce, unions, both sides of the aisle, look at the real cost drivers in the system: long-term chronic illnesses, root causes like childhood obesity, streamlining billing. Important steps forward to make sure small businesses reduce the growth of health care costs and put more money into creating more jobs."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023

THE CASE FOR THE HIKES

State Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, issued this collection of facts and arguments when the gas tax bill passed:

• Gas tax up two cents per gallon last spring, state's first in 20 years; three more cents Oct. 1

• Caps on license tab fees were removed

• Counties got option of quarter-cent sales tax (Dakota later said yes, Scott said no)

• Cities and counties to get a lot more for roads: Belle Plaine from $239,000 to $818,000 over 10 years, Scott County from $5,786,000 to $26,601,000

• That in turn should reduce counties' reliance on property taxes to pay for roads

• Legislative auditor had warned that state lacked funds for roads: The number rated "poor" in condition was projected to double over three years.

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