Suburban and outstate Minnesotans whose roads and bridges would benefit the most from Gov. Mark Dayton’s transportation plan are solidly against the gas tax increase he would use to pay for it.
A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll taken March 16-18 shows 52 percent of adults oppose the plan while 45 percent support it, but the opposition is fiercest in the suburbs outside Hennepin and Ramsey counties and in outstate Minnesota, where about 3 out of 5 residents are against the plan.
Respondents in Hennepin and Ramsey counties favored the gas tax, 59 to 37 percent.
“I feel that the state should be getting enough money from the tax we’re already paying, and to jack the price up just because the price of gas came down” is unfair, said George Wosika, a Republican-leaning resident of Bena who owns a fishing resort. “For me to go to Bemidji and go shopping, it’s 100 miles, so the price of gas is a big part of our cost of living.”
The outstate opposition comes after Dayton and key surrogates like Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and Senate DFLers, who have a similar transportation plan, have spent nearly three months barnstorming the state in such cities as New Ulm, Bemidji, Moorhead, Willmar and Crookston. More than 70 percent of the proposed projects and about 55 percent of proposed spending is in outstate Minnesota. Through a spokesman, Dayton released a statement that acknowledged the burden of gas costs for outstate Minnesotans because of the distances they travel, though the governor stuck by his plan: “I’m not for raising the gas tax because it’s popular. I’m for improving our highways, roads and bridges because they are critical to our state’s future.”
The Dayton plan, which is similar to a proposal by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, would spend $11 billion to upgrade 2,200 miles of state roadways and 330 aging bridges, and to improve transit. The plan would be paid for with a 6.5 percent gross receipts tax on gasoline at the wholesale level, meaning drivers would pay an extra 14 cents per gallon at current prices, with the tax per gallon rising as prices rise, so that at $4 per gallon, the wholesale tax would be 22 cents. That would be on top of the existing state gas tax of 28.5 cents per gallon.
To fund mass transit improvements, Dayton is asking for a half-cent increase in the sales tax in the seven-county metro area.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, seized on the poll results as a repudiation of Dayton’s transportation agenda: “Minnesotans want us to take care of our road and bridge infrastructure. But at a time when the public is hearing about surpluses, they are asking, ‘Why can’t you take care of our priorities with the tax money we’ve already given you?’ The answer is, ‘We can.’ ”
Republicans in the Legislature will release their own transportation plan Monday. Daudt declined to discuss details, but he said the proposal would meet the need and provide a long-term, stable, dedicated funding source without raising the gas tax.
For a sizable minority of the public, transportation is a key priority, according to the poll. If state spending is to increase, 28 percent believe roads should take priority, second only to K-12 education with 34 percent.
Both Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, have said only dedicated gas tax revenue will suffice. Otherwise, they say, legislators will dip into road money to pay for schools and other priorities when leaner budget times arrive with the next recession.
Dayton acknowledges the tough sell, but he and his supporters believe visits around the state to tout his plan have moved public opinion. He cited other polls from last year and earlier this year that showed a gas tax increase losing by a much wider margin than in the Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
His plan has supporters, especially in Ramsey and Hennepin counties.
Mark Greenwald, a 62-year-old Minneapolis resident who calls himself a fiscally conservative Democrat, said he favors the plan as a necessary step to improve the state’s infrastructure.
“One bridge went down a few years ago, and I’m worried about the others,” said Greenwald, referring to the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge.
He advocates a plan that would raise the gas tax one penny per gallon per quarter for 10 years, so that after an initial battle to enact it, consumers would barely notice the incremental rise that would eventually raise big money.
Dayton’s plan shares similarities with this idea because it would increase revenue slowly as the price of gas climbs, which most analysts expect is inevitable in the coming years. This approach contrasts with the current fixed per-gallon retail gas tax.
By an almost 2-1 margin in the poll, Minnesotans say they favor the fixed per-gallon gas tax approach rather than a levy that rises and falls with the price of petrol.
Analysts say the fixed per-gallon approach could be problematic as cars and trucks become more efficient and consumers buy fewer gallons of gas to travel the same distances.
Dayton also has work to do convincing Minnesotans that transportation is a key problem and priority. More than three-fourths of residents said the state’s roads and bridges are in “fair,” “good” or “excellent” condition, while about 1 in 5 say the status of the infrastructure is “poor.”
Dayton has said repeatedly that transportation typically receives short shrift because the political costs are immediate, while the tangible benefits come later, often much later. In his statement to the Star Tribune, he reiterated the point: “It’s tough to convince people to pay more now, when they won’t receive the benefits for several years.”
Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042