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Citing transportation needs, DFLers to push for 7.5 cent gas tax

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The average driver would pay up to 7.5 cents a gallon more in gasoline taxes under an $8.4 billion transportation funding plan Democratic lawmakers hope to drive through the Minnesota Legislature.

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Also, many Minnesotans would pay more for license tab fees and some could face higher sales taxes if the Democratic-Farmer-Labor plan to improve roads, bridges and transit projects overcomes a threatened governor's veto.

Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy said Tuesday the plan puts "political courage above political ambition," improves the safety of Minnesota roads and bridges and creates thousands of new jobs as the state looks at ways to recover from 23,000 job losses.

"We're putting 33,000 people back to work with this bill," Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said at a Capitol news conference. "Let's kick off the economy and let's do it with a good transportation bill. This covers it."

Lawmakers unveiled the transportation package in the morning, then gave the bill its first committee hearings as GOP lawmakers blamed Democrat-Farmer-Laborites for not working with Republicans and Gov. Tim Pawlenty to put together a compromise.

House Republicans, who will be pressured to help override an expected Pawlenty veto, were especially critical of the plan.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said DFLers did not learn from their failed attempt to pass a transportation bill last year. Now Democrats are back with a spending plan that is bigger than ever, he said.

"I can't see this bill getting overridden with how big and lardy it is," Seifert said. "If they wanted Republican votes, they should have moved to the middle instead of moving to the far left."

Rep. Bernie Lieder, who leads the House Transportation Finance Division, said the plan balances highway and bridge needs in rural Minnesota with those in metropolitan areas, and balances road and transit projects

It was not crafted to secure specific lawmakers' votes, he said.

"It's a good bill," the Crookston DFLer said. "They should be able to vote without saying you're going to give them something for it."

A gubernatorial veto appears likely.

"A more than $8 billion tax increase in a struggling economy won't sit well with most Minnesotans and the governor doesn't support it," Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said.

Leading Democrats would not say whether they have the needed votes to override a Pawlenty veto.

"We'll see when the votes are posted," Murphy said.

The bill relies on a nickel-per-gallon gasoline tax increase, beginning with a 2-cent hike when the bill becomes law. Motorists would see another hike of 3 cents per gallon in September. Lawmakers also allow the tax to automatically increase with inflation in future years.

"Basically, you've got a door wide open," Rep. Doug Magnus of Slayton said.

Magnus, the top Republican on Lieder's committee, said the announcement Tuesday was a continuation of Democrats' strategy from last year.

"This bill is going to be come to be known as the 'my-way or no highway bill,'" he said. "These folks evidently like to negotiate with themselves."

Above the nickel-per-gallon hike, the fuel tax would increase by 2.5 cents to help pay off more than $2.2 billion in state-issued bonds for highway and bridge projects. That had Republicans saying the bill would boost the gas tax by 7.5 cents instead of a nickel, and reminding Minnesotans they also would be subjected to higher motor vehicle registration fees.

Introduced about six months after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, supporters said the spending plan puts a new focus on fix the state's bridges. It creates a bridge improvement program to speed up repairs on the most problematic structures.

It would provide $500 million in bridge work in each of the next two years, more than half of which would be dedicated to repairing or replacing bridges with design flaws.

"We're serious about fixing Minnesota's bridges," Murphy said.

Twin Cities rail and bus projects would be funded by a half-cent sales tax increase in Twin Cities-area counties. Counties outside the Twin Cities could decide to impose a similar sales tax hike for specific transportation projects, but those increases would be subject to voter approval.

The state's 20-cent-per-gallon fuel tax has not been increased since 1988. Democrats would provide a gas tax credit of $25 a year for low-income Minnesotans who are at least 18 years old, regardless of how many miles they drive.

"That kind of takes the brunt off," Lieder said.

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