House Democrats approve gas tax hike, gun control over GOP opposition

Minnesota House Democrats approved a 20-cent per gallon gas tax increase and tougher gun restrictions late Monday, despite Republican opposition.

The 74-58 vote on the gas tax fell along party lines and followed a two-day, marathon debate over Democrats’ transportation budget bill. House DFL leaders then advanced their judiciary bill, which includes two gun control measures, on a 70-64 vote with a handful of Democrats breaking ranks and joining Republicans in voting no.

Senate Republicans vowed Monday to block both bills, setting up intense negotiations between both sides before the May 20 deadline.

“We are bringing this to negotiations, and I intend to fight for these provisions until the very last minute of the very last day,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, about the gun restrictions.

The measures will require a background check before many gun transfers – except those to immediate family members – and will let police take guns from people deemed by judges as threatening.

Hortman said earlier in the day that her caucus was not 100 percent unified behind the bill because “there are a couple members for whom this is a difficult vote,” but said she was 100 percent confident the legislation would pass.

Gov. Tim Walz spoke to activists in the Capitol rotunda while wearing a button supporting Protect Minnesota, one of the groups pushing for tougher gun laws. He told them that “this is our opportunity to show that democracy works.”

But before the House could vote, Senate Republicans poured cold water on the debate.

“We’re just not going to do it. The bills are dead,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. “It’s a nonstarter for the Senate.”

While speaking with reporters, Walz noted the weekend shooting at a California synagogue and said both Republican and Democratic politicians had seen a need for tougher gun laws in other states.

“We’re coming on the heels of another shooting. I think there’s every reason to believe we can get at least that done as a minimum,” Walz said. “I’m still hopeful.”

Gas tax increase

A similar theme exists on transportation funding: House Democrats advanced their gas tax increase with Walz’s support, only to hear Republicans insist they would reject it.

The House proposal would raise the tax by 20 cents per gallon over four years, twice the length of Walz’s proposed phase-in. It also includes increases in vehicle registration fees, except on cars and trucks that are at least 11 years old.

“The needs are obvious on the system. All you need to do is get in your car and go somewhere,” said Hortman said. “It is clear that we have underinvested in transportation.”

Walz said he had not backed away from his support of a 20-cent increase, while Senate Republicans are promising not to support any increase.

“We have a bill that lowers the gas tax 20 cents. If we compromise between the 20 cents up and the 20 cents down, we’re at a perfect spot: no gas tax increase,” Gazelka said.

Both sides are rushing to approve their top budget priorities and get them into negotiating sessions by Wednesday’s deadline. The divided state Legislature faces a May 20 deadline to avoid a special session over the budget.

Wipe out $15 minimum wage?

The Senate voted 40-26 Monday on its jobs budget bill, which includes a provision striking down Minneapolis and St. Paul’s $15 minimum wage ordinances.

Republicans said it was proper that the two cities remain in line with the state’s $9.86 minimum wage. The bill passed 40-26.

“We’re not trying to take away local control from anybody. I don’t think they should’ve had that control and I think historically they haven’t had that control,” said state Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake.

Democrats said they would block Republicans from imposing the ban.

“I think they know they’re trying to make a point but it certainly will not be the law of the land at the end of the day,” Walz said.