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Nancy Ohanian, Tribune Media Services

Edina legislator battles for gas tax increase

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • February 2, 2013 - 7:01 PM

From 2005 until 2008, there was a representative from Edina who gave a governor of his own party fits by repeatedly sending him bills containing gas tax increases that violated the governor's sensibilities.

What's that French saying? "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

Rep. Ron Erhardt is back. Once a Republican, he's a DFLer now. Permit me to put DFL Gov. Mark Dayton on notice: Erhardt is working on a gas tax increase again, whether you like it or not. He's going for a nickel this year and 1.5 cents more in each of the ensuing three years.

Permit, too, a recap of Erhardt's recent political journey. It's one wily octogenarian's quest for vindication and one more chance to make a difference. (Put Hollywood on notice too. This tale would appeal to the growing senior moviegoing audience.)

Erhardt was a mostly loyal GOP legislator through six terms that began in 1991. But in 2003, after his wife's death showed him how fleeting life can be, he set out to do something about the traffic congestion that vexed his constituents each weekday.

He wasn't interested in baby steps. He assembled a bill that included a gas tax increase for roads and bridges, a metrowide sales tax for transit, a constitutional amendment to dedicate motor vehicle sales taxes to transportation and more -- $7.8 billion in all in the 2005 version.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and most GOP legislators opposed him, standing firm on a "no new taxes" platform. But Erhardt got the constitutional amendment onto the 2006 ballot, where it won approval. DFLers took control of the House in the same election.

In 2008, those DFLers plus Erhardt and five other brave Republicans overrode Pawlenty's third veto. For the first time in 20 years, Minnesota's gas tax would go up -- 8.5 cents per gallon, phased in over several years.

The GOP Override Six were in trouble with their party. Two promptly retired. Two faced primary challenges; one, Rep. Neil Peterson of Bloomington, lost in that fashion.

Erhardt was denied party endorsement for a 10th term. He switched to the Independence Party, and narrowly lost a three-way contest to Republican Keith Downey.

A less determined legislator would have called it a career at that point. Erhardt adopted the DFL label and let it be known that he was interested in a comeback. He tested the tea-infused water in 2010 and waited. In 2012, well before other DFLers showed interest in the District 49A seat, he was vigorously knocking on Edina doors.

He won his old seat with 56 percent of the vote on Nov. 6 -- two weeks after his 83rd birthday.

When I gingerly allowed last week that his impatience about the next transportation funding surge might be a product of his, uh, seniority, Erhardt didn't call me wrong. Instead, he sounded like the veteran legislative strategist he is:

"It takes a long time to get [legislators] to understand these issues. If you're going to get anything done in the time you've got, you've got to get going now."

Dayton is backing a quarter-cent increase in the metro sales tax dedicated to transit funding. But the governor said in December that he doesn't support a gas tax hike this year.

Erhardt doesn't think a higher metro sales tax can become law without one.

"We've got to move ahead with both roads and transit. The rural people here don't get anything from the sales tax. When they understand that -- and I think someone will tell them -- they'll insist on a gas tax increase." When he said "someone," I think I saw a wink.

Erhardt exhibits no more deference to his new party's governor than he did to his old party's.

"This governor should know better," he said of Dayton's reluctance to pursue a gas tax increase this year.

He faults Dayton for failing to champion his own task force's recommendation for a 40-cent gas tax hike phased in over 20 years. He wants Dayton to tell Minnesotans what transportation investments are needed to preserve the state's economic health and to lead a public discussion about how to pay for it.

A member of Dayton's transportation task force is the new MnDOT commissioner, Charlie Zelle, longtime president and CEO of Jefferson Lines. Erhardt said that the day after Zelle got Dayton's nod, he spoke with Zelle about the task force's cool reception from the governor.

"I told him, 'Just remember this: There's always the override,'" Erhardt said.

He laughed as he related that exhange. But I'd advise Dayton and Zelle not to conclude that he was kidding.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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