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Minnesota Poll: No tax and no rush on bridge, public says

  • Article by: Pat Doyle
  • Star Tribune
  • October 7, 2007 - 5:02 PM

Minnesotans aren't clamoring for action from state leaders in the wake of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll has found, supporting neither a gas tax increase nor a new special session to fund bridge repairs.

The poll found 50 percent of respondents opposed raising the gas tax, while 46 percent supported it. The gap is within the poll's margin of sampling error -- 4 percentage points, plus or minus.

The poll, which surveyed 802 Minnesota adults Sept. 18 through 23, also indicates that the public doesn't fault Gov. Tim Pawlenty or the DFL-led Legislature for not dealing with the bridge collapse in a recent special session.

Sixty-eight percent approved of the way Pawlenty handled the disaster, and 58 percent approved of the Legislature's handling of it.

A majority also sees no need for another special session to deal with bridges. By 53 percent to 42 percent, respondents say the matter can wait until next year's regular session.

Strong feelings on tax

Minnesota's gas tax, among the lowest in the nation, is likely to figure prominently in an upcoming legislative debate over how to pay for bridge and other transportation improvements. That debate has intensified as a result of a revelation last week that replacing the 35W bridge will cost much more than state officials estimated two months ago and likely require a substantial infusion of state money.

Supporters and opponents of a gas tax hike responded with strong feelings.

"I think it's a bad idea because they waste our money anyway," said Pam Dionne, 45, of Minnetonka, referring to the state and federal government. "They should use it properly, then they'd have the money for inspections. I think we are taxed way too heavily."

But Virgil Schneider, 65, of Chaska, says increasing the gas tax is the right way to pay for improvements because high-mileage drivers pay the most.

"The more I use it, the more I'm going to pay for it," Schneider said. "A user fee seems very fair to me."

The poll asked if people would accept higher gasoline taxes "to pay for increased inspection and repair of bridges."

Responses varied most by education and party affiliation. Fifty-seven percent of college graduates approved of raising the gas tax, compared with 45 percent of those with some college education and 39 percent of those with none.

Support also split along party lines, with 56 percent of Democrats willing to pay a higher gas tax and 41 percent of Republicans willing to do so.

The poll's margin of error is larger for subgroups like those defined by education and party affiliation.

'Muddy waters'

Some who have followed the issue over the years were surprised that more people didn't support a gas tax hike in the aftermath of the disaster.

"I would have thought the bridge collapsing might have been a pretty good indicator that something needed to happen, but it's still muddy waters," said Lee Munnich, who specializes in transportation policy at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

He said politicians supporting a hike have not made a persuasive case that routine but critical maintenance needs more money and the federal government won't provide enough of it.

"I think a lot of the debate since the bridge collapsed has sort of left people thinking, 'Well, maybe we've got enough money from the federal government, maybe we don't need a gas tax increase,'" Munnich said.

He noted that the gas tax hits rural drivers more heavily than metro residents, and the poll showed 55 percent of people outside the Twin Cities opposing a gas tax hike.

Minnesota's gas tax was last increased to 20 cents in 1988, when it had the buying power of 35 cents. The average state gas tax is 28.5 cents, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Twelve states have a lower tax than Minnesota.

Minnesota's ranking is no consolation to opponents of raising the tax.

"I think for every dollar you pay in taxes you get back about 10 cents in value," said Robert O'Byrne, 57, of rural Rochester, who expressed irritation with a MnDOT project in his area that he views as wasteful.

Ralph Belin, 82, a retired Lutheran minister from Chaska, is something of a paradox. On one hand, he favors a gas tax hike to improve bridges, saying, "I don't think people in our state are that bad off, they can afford a nickel a gallon."

Pawlenty has vetoed gas tax increases over the years and Belin said he disagrees with the governor's insistence after the bridge disaster that any gas tax hike be offset by a cut in income taxes.

Still, he described DFLers supporting a gas tax hike as grandstanding and ineffective and said Pawlenty has "done a pretty darn good job considering all the roadblocks that the other party's been putting in his way."

DFL, Pawlenty view

That assessment rankles some DFLers who view Pawlenty as a longstanding impediment to transportation improvements.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said Pawlenty and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau "have tried to hoodwink the people into thinking we don't have a problem and can borrow our way into prosperity and don't have to raise taxes. They have the bully pulpit."

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor and legislators agree more money is needed for transportation. "He's willing to consider a reasonable gas tax increase under certain circumstances as part of a comprehensive transportation package," McClung said.

Carleton College political science Prof. Steven Schier said Pawlenty's approval rating has less to do with any policy decision than with "visibly asserting a leadership position" during a crisis.

"He has reaped some political benefit just as Giuliani has," Schier said, referring to the former New York mayor's high profile after Sept. 11.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

Pat Doyle • pdoyle@startribune.com

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