One eye's on the gas pump, the other's on the ballot boxby Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
With gas pricesnear $3 a gallon, some Minnesota lawmakers have proposed fixes ranging from a gas tax holiday to criminal penalties for gas price gouging. Legislators acknowledge there's not much the state can do about the high prices. But that may not matter to voters who could take out their frustration on incumbents this fall.
St. Paul, Minn. — Ask any legislator, and they'll tell you one of the main things constituents are bending their ear about is gas prices.
The problem for state legislators is that there's not much they can do. They don't control the price of oil from the Middle East or have much effect on global supply and demand. They do have a say over the state's 20-cent-a-gallon gas tax, which hasn't gone up for nearly two decades.
Rep. Paul Kohls, R-Victoria, says Minnesota should temporarily remove the tax for six months to give motorists a break.
"We got gas prices hovering between $2.75 and $3, kind of bouncing back and forth, and the summer driving season isn't even here yet," he says.
Gas tax money goes into the state's highway user trust fund, which pays for road construction. Kohl's proposal would replenish the highway fund with money in a tax relief account. House Republicans have already passed legislation that would use that same pot of money for property tax rebate checks, but the rebate plan appears to be dead in the Senate so the money in the tax relief account might still be available.
Kohls says if Democrats don't like the rebate checks, maybe they'll support his gas tax holiday.
But Senate Democrats quickly panned Kohl's proposal . "That's just political nonsense. And I would hope that the public would look through that and say, you guys are morons," said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, on Thursday. He chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. He says Kohl's gas tax holiday is a short-term political gimmick.
Murphy says instead of rolling back the state gas tax, the state should crack down on gas price gouging.
"There is gouging going on all across the United States, and all across the world," Murphy said during floor debate.
Murphy acknowledges there's no indication gouging is widespread in Minnesota, but says the state should do what it can to prohibit it. The Senate passed Murphy's proposal to make it a crime for a retailer or wholesaler to sell gasoline at a price that grossly exceeds their cost.
Under the bill, The state Department of Commerce would come up with a more specific definition of gouging, and companies violating the law could be charged with a misdemeanor. Murphy says it's one way state officials could put the brakes on gas prices.
"I think that if every state in the nation did this, then their states would be covered, and then maybe the federal government would have the backbone to stand up to these oil interests and say, 'hey, enough's enough,'" he said.
There's plenty of talk at the federal level about gas prices. The U.S. House passed a bill that would make price gouging a federal crime, supported by all but one of Minnesota's House members. Martin Sabo didn't vote. Congressman Mark Kennedy wants to suspend the federal gas tax for the summer, Sen. Mark Dayton has called for a new energy bill to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, and Sen. Norm Coleman is pushing legislation to increase the use of renewable fuels and hybrid vehicles.
Coleman criticized his own Republican colleagues, calling a Senate GOP plan for a $100 gas rebate per driver "a little too cute and a little too meaningless."
Political science professor Joe Kunkel of Minnesota State University in Mankato says polls show that voters think the high price of gas is one of the top issues facing the country. He says the issue could hurt politicians this election year.
"I think all incumbents are rightly nervous about this issue, because it's something that can bite them, but Republicans, in particular, ought to be concerned because they are the governing party at the federal level," according to Kunkel.
Kunkel says voters are skeptical about politicians' ability to do anything about the high price at the pump, and the issue is tangled up in the politics of the Middle East. But to put $3 gas in context, Kunkel notes that gas is about $7 a gallon in Finland. On the other extreme, it's about 12 cents a gallon in Venezuela.
- All Things Considered, 05/12/2006, 5:23 p.m.