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The Pawlenty U-Turn

August 07, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Gov. Tim Pawlenty's announcement in the wake of the deadly Interstate Hwy. 35W bridge collapse that he will seek a "comprehensive long-term solution" for Minnesota's lagging transportation finances marks a welcome about-face from his dogged insistence on road maintenance spending cuts, tax shifts and borrowing, but no tax hikes, to pay for needed improvements.

But don't think that the governor's newly stated willingness to propose an unspecified increase in the 20-cents-a-gallon state gasoline tax signals that the state will surely respond to the bridge tragedy with a meaningful effort to rebuild its crumbling transportation infrastructure.

For one thing, the gas tax, which now provides about one-third of Minnesota's highway funding, cannot carry the load alone. Bipartisan legislative proposals have relied on modest increases in the gas tax, vehicle registration fees, county wheelage taxes and local-option sales taxes, and they still wouldn't have bridged even half of the state's $1.7 billion annual shortfall in financing for roads and transit.

Pawlenty twice vetoed such bills, most recently with the complaint that they would "impose an unnecessary and onerous financial burden on Minnesota's citizens and would weaken our state's economy." The bridge collapse has convinced most Minnesotans of the necessity of such investments, and a growing body of evidence suggests that they strengthen, not weaken, economic performance.

But as the governor considers whether to call a special session of the Legislature this year for transportation financing, there will still be heated debate over what level of investment would be too onerous for taxpayers.

Addressing proposals to increase the gas tax for the first time since 1988, Pawlenty in the past said it couldn't be done because of rising prices at the pump. In 2005, it was about $2 a gallon and a 10-cent hike dedicated completely to roads and bridges was too much, the governor said.

You want onerous? Since then the pump meter has rolled past $3 a gallon several times, not a penny of the increase for the surfaces we drive on. Meanwhile, the gas tax has lost more than one-third of its original purchasing power, now equal to 13 cents in 1988 terms.

The Legislature's most recent stab at putting taxpayers' money into transportation projects would have raised about $700 million a year, still $1 billion shy of the shortfall. Now Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy says $700 million is "below the floor" for the beginning of negotiations over a post-tragedy funding package. His target is more than $1 billion, he said Monday.

"The level of taxation is going to be a concern for many legislators," Murphy said. "But the public is going to be surprised at how little it's going to cost and how well it will serve them. The time for wringing our hands is past. We failed, along with the bridge."

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