Despite threat of veto, lawmakers pursuing gas taxby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
Despite Gov. Pawlenty's threats to veto a DFL-backed transportation bill when it lands on his desk, a few of his fellow Republicans in the House have already voted in support of the bill. But for DFL lawmakers, the prospect of a veto override still appears out of their reach.
St. Paul, Minn. — The transportation bills moving through the Minnesota House and Senate would raise up to $1 billion a year for highways, bridges and transit projects. The new revenue would come from a combination of bonding, taxes and fees.
The legislation would raise the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon. Both bills also call for higher license tab fees and would allow counties to enact new vehicle surcharges and sales tax increases.
"The need in transportation is about a billion dollars per year moving forward. So, we need to invest in our roads and our transit system," said DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm. "This bill does just that. And it's been far too long since we've done anything, since the mid to late '80s. So, it's time to step up for the economy and for the safety of Minnesotans."
Sertich says he's encouraged to see a few Republicans supporting the bill too. Three House Republicans voted for the measure last week when it cleared the Transportation Committee. But the level of their commitment varies significantly.
Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, supported a gas tax increase two years ago that was vetoed by Gov. Pawlenty. And he's supporting it again this session.
"There is a great need, and this is a big bill," he acknowledged. "But still it doesn't encompass all of the needs. And so it's a very nice and large start."
Erhardt's support for the transportation bill remains firm. But Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, is backtracking, and he plans to vote against the bill he originally voted for. He says the gas tax increase is too high and the sales tax should require a referendum. Severson blamed last week's "yes" vote on confusion and lack of preparation.
"I was in two other previous committees. They called me down for a roll call vote. And I came, and I was thinking then that it was still putting together the bill. When I heard it was a roll call on the final one, I didn't have all the information in there. And I probably should have abstained because I didn't know all the provisions in there. But I felt like a "yes" vote is going to keep moving it forward and we'll keep working with it," Severson said.
The third House Republican who voted for the bill is Rep. Michael Beard of Shakopee. Beard says the proposal is a little rich for his taste, but it recognizes the need for a larger state investment in transportation.
Beard says he'll vote for the bill on the House floor, but he won't go as far as to challenge the governor.
"At the end of the day, there will be a good transportation bill that passes this place," Beard said. "I have serious doubts as to whether this is going to be it. If this comes back with the governor's veto stamp on it, there's no way I'm going to override the veto."
The partisan loyalty of Beard and other Republicans could ultimately spell the demise of this transportation bill. Democrats control 85 seats in the House. They would need the help of five Republicans to get the 90 votes required to override a veto.
"I'm very confident we'll be able to sustain a veto on this," says House Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall, who says a few members of his caucus might vote for the DFL transportation bill. But he's promising a united caucus will uphold the governor's veto.
"I don't know why we're going through the partisan exercise," Seifert said. "I think we should sit down and work out a compromise, instead of going through this back-and-forth with the governor to try to thump chests and make it look like the vast majority of the public is in favor of this giant tax increase."
At least one more committee stop is planned later this week for the House transportation bill, with a floor vote now scheduled on Saturday.
- All Things Considered, 03/19/2007, 5:20 p.m.