By STEVE KARNOWSKI Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota House passed a Democratic-backed transportation budget bill Monday night that includes Gov. Tim Walz’s proposal to increase the state’s gasoline tax by 20 cents per gallon to pay for road and bridge projects, while the top Senate Republican reiterated his opposition and said he’s not open to compromise.
The 74-58 vote on the $7.2 billion package fell mostly along party lines. Majority Democrats stressed during several hours of debate that began Friday the need for a stable, dedicated source of revenue to make badly needed road and bridge improvements. Their proposal would raise the gas tax by a nickel per year for four years for a 70% total increase from the current tax of 28.5 cents per gallon.
Minority Republicans countered that the state already has plenty of money to spend on transportation from existing revenue streams and a projected $1 billion budget surplus. They also pointed to a recent Department of Revenue analysis that found the tax increase would fall hardest on low- and middle-income residents, and said it would make driving more expensive for all Minnesota motorists.
Democrats rejected numerous Republican amendments to weaken the bill, including one to put the gas tax increase to a statewide referendum, which was the closest the GOP minority came to forcing a separate vote on killing the hike. Still, the gas tax hung over nearly the entire debate.
“Excessive taxes in this transportation bill are going to move Minnesota families backwards,” Republican Rep. Jon Koznick said during the referendum debate.
But House Transportation Committee Chairman Frank Hornstein called the amendment unconstitutional. The Minneapolis Democrat pointed out that the state constitution doesn’t provide for initiatives and referendums as some other states do, including California, where the process is frequently used.
“I’m surprised to see we have folks on the other side of the aisle that really want Minnesota to be more like California,” Hornstein said. “That’s what they do in California — they don’t like something, they put it on the ballot.”
The amendment failed on a 56-74 vote, largely on party lines.
The bill would also bump up the sales tax in the Twin Cities metropolitan area by a half-cent to generate more money for public transportation. And it would raise vehicle registration fees.
Including the gas tax increase in the broad funding bill will force Republicans who control the Senate to discuss the proposal in conference committee, but Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said those discussions won’t go anywhere, even if Democrats eventually propose a lower increase.
“We’re not going to do a gas tax,” the Nisswa Republican told reporters. “I’ve made it very clear that that’s not a direction we’re going to go.”
Walz told reporters he wasn’t ready to back down from 20 cents but indicated he’s willing to discuss other ways of funding transportation needs.
“We have a deteriorating infrastructure system that puts lives at risk, and it puts us at an economic disadvantage,” Walz said.
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