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Senate eyes transportation tax

ST. PAUL -- There is no choice but to raise taxes to improve Minnesota's transportation system, say state Senate Democrats.

“I can't think of another path ... without some increase in revenue,” Sen. Vicki Jenson, D-Owatonna, said Monday as she and colleagues introduced a bill that will raise and spend more than $1 billion annually for roads, bridges and transit projects. “We are going to have to pay.”

Sen. Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said that changes are made because transportation needs remain unmet.

“We are not addressing these needs with our current approach,” Kent said.

While House Republicans suggested a short-term $750 million spending bill over four years, Democrats said more money, and permanent funding, is needed.

“We are very much headed in the right direction,” Kent said about the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party bill. “This is basic math.”

The plan, similar to one expected later this month from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and one already released by transportation advocates, would impose a new wholesale 6.5 percent sales tax on gasoline, on top of the current 28.5 cents per-gallon gas tax.

The wholesale gas proposal would add the equivalent of about a dime per gallon at the current wholesale price.

Also, it would raise vehicle license plate fees, increase a Twin Cities sales tax for transit projects and borrow money for other transportation needs.

The proposal would add nearly $800 million in the next year, with more than $1 billion coming in future years.

Republicans were critical of the Senate Democratic majority.

“The proposed Senate DFL tax hike will hit the pocketbooks of Minnesota’s middle-class with a vengeance,” President Mark Drake of the GOP-leaning Minnesota Jobs Coalition said.

House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, last week released a $750 million proposal that he said was designed as a short-term fix until the House could determine the state's real transportation needs. He said $200 million of it would come from other state programs and the rest of the money would be from money the state already has on hand, such as funds the Legislature has approved for road projects, but not spent.

The DFL plan's author, Minneapolis Democratic Sen. Scott Dibble, said that state leaders have taken too long talking about the problem of crumbling roads and congestion.

“The time has come to stop the admiring of the problem,” he said.

Dibble said the state needs to spend $21 billion over 20 years to maintain what is in place, and pegged the price at $55 billion to compete internationally.

The senator said lack of proper transportation funding is driving the elderly, disabled and young people out of their homes and communities, which costs Minnesotans money. He also said that it increases the number of wrecks and fixing the problems will cost more if not done now.

Dibble and Jenson said that the state's transportation problems reduce the chances of businesses moving to the state.

Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, said money for regional centers such as where he lives can keep them “economically viable.” The Dibble bill sets aside some funds for a passenger rail line from the Twin Cities to Duluth, which could proceed if federal money becomes available.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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