The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 1, 2013

House transportation leader to push gas tax increase

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — A legislative leader on transportation issues told Mankato-area civic leaders he plans to push a 5-cent increase in Minnesota’s gasoline tax with much of the revenue directed to upgrades of “corridors of commerce” such as Highway 14.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee, said his legislation also is likely to include a local option sales tax that county boards could authorize to generate additional funding for roads or transit.

“I think the governor would sign such a bill,” Hornstein said of Gov. Mark Dayton. “But it’s up to the Legislature to pass it first.”

The county transportation sales tax wouldn’t require approval of voters via a referendum — just a majority of the county board, said Hornstein, a Minneapolis Democrat.

 And there may be some extra incentive for counties along Highway 14 to pass the tax because the “corridors of commerce” revenue would be awarded on a competitive basis — with local matching dollars likely to be a factor in which projects win the competition.

All told, the 5-cent gas tax combined with local matches and bond sales could generate up to $1 billion over 10 years, much of it aimed at 10 or so high-priority highway corridors around the state, Hornstein told community leaders at the Greater Mankato Growth headquarters.

The tax increases he plans to pursue are far from extreme considering the multi-billion-dollar gap between available transportation revenue and the documented backlog of projects that would simply maintain the state’s current road system, he said: “It’s a moderate, modest bill.”

Any increase in the gas tax, particularly at a time of steep increases in the price of gasoline, has the potential to generate Republican attacks of Democrats, who control the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in two decades. Hornstein joked about unveiling his plans at a meeting that included Rep. Paul Torkelson, a Republican who represents Brown County.

“This is all going straight back to Republican headquarters,” Hornstein said.

Torkelson is a strong supporter of completing the four-lane expansion of Highway 14 between Rochester and New Ulm, a long-sought project that would cost more than $400 million. At a meeting of Hornstein’s committee earlier his week, Torkelson said improvements are needed even beyond the elimination of the remaining two-lane segments east of New Ulm and east of Owatonna.

“I just hope we can get that section to New Ulm done so I can start working on the section from New Ulm on into the rest of my district,” Torkelson said.

After Friday’s meeting, Torkelson said he was still absorbing the details of Hornstein’s planned legislation.

“This is the first serious proposal I’ve heard,” he said. “It will be a tough sell, but it’s worth having the conversation. I think all of us care about transportation infrastructure funding. How we get there is a challenge.”

Torkelson recalled the 2008 battle to boost the gas tax over the veto of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The veto override succeeded when a half-dozen House Republicans joined all Democrats in providing the two-thirds majority required.

Those six Republicans were hammered by party leaders, however, losing leadership positions in the House and — in several cases — failing to get their party’s endorsement in the following election.

“There were political results of that (vote) that were pretty tough for some folks,” Torkelson said.

At the same time, he noted that rising fuel prices drive up the cost of constructing roads without increasing highway funding revenue (because the tax is applied per gallon rather than as a percentage of the price paid at the pump).

Rep. Kathy Brynaert, a Mankato Democrat who arranged Hornstein’s visit, said there’s a difference between 2013 and 2008 when it comes to a gas tax increase. This time, Republican support wouldn’t be mandatory because — assuming Dayton would sign the bill — the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate wouldn’t need the extra votes required for a veto override.

“We could pass the gas tax because it doesn’t take a super majority,” Brynaert said.

At the end of Friday’s meeting, Brynaert encouraged the audience of business leaders, local government officials, truckers and farmers — a group mostly supportive of upgrading Highway 14 to four lanes to New Ulm — to make their voices heard after Hornstein introduces his “corridors of commerce” legislation.

“I’m going to ask you to pay attention now through May and continue to dialogue,” she said.

Hornstein cautioned after the meeting that his bill won’t specifically allocate funds to Highway 14 or any other corridor, instead setting up criteria for a competitive process administered by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

“We’re trying to keep the politics out of this as much as possible,” he said. “... But it’s designed with those types of corridors in mind.”