Senate GOP blocks gas tax, sets up showdown with House

One day before Gov. Tim Walz’s State of the State address, Republicans dealt a blow to one of Walz’s top priorities by blocking a 20-cent per gallon gas tax increase in the state Senate.

The 10-5 vote in the Senate Transportation committee sets up a showdown with House Democrats, who are largely supporting Walz’s gas tax and registration fee increases and plan to move forward in their chamber.

Monday’s moves indicate that the public relations campaign is in full swing on both sides. Walz’s transportation commissioner said drivers are asking for a gas tax increase to fix crumbling roads, while Republicans argue that the costs will especially hurt rural people and suburbanites who drive a lot.

“This is the most regressive tax,” said state Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Brook Park. “It’s on our vehicles all the way through the time we own them, every time we fill them up, every time we get our tabs. This is the wrong way to go.”

Walz’s proposal will cost drivers an average of $185 to $298 more per year, according to a document provided by the state Department of Transportation. A driver with a 15-gallon gas tank that fills up weekly would pay about $150 more per year. The registration fee increase will cost between $35 and $148 more per year for the driver of a $30,000 car, depending on the age of the vehicle.

MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher defended the proposal Monday, citing recent infrastructure failures as evidence more funding is necessary. In one 24-hour period in mid-March, 14 tires blew out because of potholes on Interstate 94 in downtown Minneapolis, Kelliher said.

“I have Minnesotans approach me every day asking me to raise their gas tax. They know it’s dedicated (to roads and bridge funding),” she told FOX 9 after the committee vote. “I’ve had it happen three times at a quilt shop over the weekend. I’ve had it happen at the gas pump. So, I think different people see this differently.”

Hours before Senate Republicans blocked the tax and fee proposal from moving forward, House Democrats unveiled their road funding plan that largely mirrors Walz’s ideas. At the DFL news conference, construction union workers stood behind lawmakers wearing orange, the color of traffic cones.

The House proposal phases in the 20-cent per gallon gas tax increase over four years, instead of two in Walz’s plan. House Democrats said they would also raise registration fees on most vehicles, but decrease them on cars that are at least 11 years old.

“We are happy to join Gov. Walz in giving Minnesotans a choice between investment and progress in transportation and the status quo or falling further behind,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

Republicans have pointed to extra funding they directed to roads and bridges in 2017 from the state’s sales tax on auto parts, which Democrats view as inadequate to fund billions of dollars in needed infrastructure projects.

But some Senate Republicans said Monday that MnDOT has enough money. One pointed to the Goose Creek rest stop on Interstate 35 in Chisago County, which is undergoing a multi-million dollar rebuild that features imported Brazilian wood on the side of the building. 

“We’re going to say we’re not putting money into our roads and bridges. That’s part of the reason why. It’s a choice that was made,” Rarick said.

Kelliher said she had asked MnDOT officials to review the Goose Creek rest stop project, which was approved before she took office. She said she would be open if lawmakers wanted to restrict the agency from using imported Brazilian wood in the future.

Senate Republicans who control the Transportation committee gave 10 members of the public one minute apiece to testify Monday. That led some testifiers to speed through their prepared remarks before state Sen. John Jasinski, who was acting as the committee chairman, told them to “wrap it up.”

Representatives from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Minnesota Grocers Association, Minnesota Auto Dealers Association and the convenience stores lobby spoke against the proposed gas tax increase. Union groups, including construction trades and the AFL-CIO, and the City of Minneapolis, were among those testifying in favor of it.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said the time limits showed that the public’s voice was being “thwarted.”

“I frankly have never seen anything like this in the entire 18 years I’ve been in the Legislature,” Dibble said.