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House panel says 'no' to gas-tax hike

Senate division backs increase

By Brian Bakst

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Plans to bump up Minnesota's 20-cent-per-gallon gas-tax increase hit a roadblock Thursday in the House, but stayed on course in the Senate.

The respective transportation budget committees staked out different positions on the gas tax as they forged bills to pump billions of dollars into the state's road and transit system over the next 10 years.

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The House Transportation Finance Committee voted down a plan to add a nickel to the tax. The Senate Transportation Budget Division approved a bill that would increase the tax by 4 cents this year and 3 cents more in 2007.

Both bills also raise the fees that some car owners would pay to register their vehicles.

The House spending bill, approved on a voice vote, could put $6.3 billion into road and transit projects over the next decade. That amount would be cut in half if voters didn't agree in 2006 to dedicate future vehicle sales-tax proceeds to transportation needs through a constitutional amendment.

The Senate bill, which passed on a 11-7 bipartisan vote, contains a potential $5.8 billion for transportation and has some funding contingent on a vehicle sales-tax amendment.

The House committee took two gas-tax votes, including one that stripped a provision that would have let citizens decide in a constitutional referendum whether to raise the gas tax. The vote wouldn't occur until 2006; the other would have raised the tax this June upon final approval.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has vowed to veto any bill that contains a state tax increase. And the House committee chairwoman, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said legislators should take Pawlenty at his word.

"There will never be enough votes to override a veto on the gas tax," she said.

Rep. Dan Larson, DFL-Bloomington, said he's not convinced Pawlenty would follow through on the veto threat. The gas tax is dedicated to road funding, so some regard it more as a user fee.

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"An override might be difficult, but I don't know why we wouldn't put pressure on the governor," Larson said. "If he wants to veto it, then we'll go back to work."

The Senate handily rejected an attempt to make the gas-tax increase contingent on voter approval.

"I don't think the price of gas should be part of our founding document," said Sen. Sharon Marko, DFL-Cottage Grove.

A gas-tax increase has decent odds of getting through the Senate, and it could resurface as an amendment on the House floor.

A few revenue-raisers did survive in the House. Driver's license fees would go up by $3 apiece, and it would cost $2.50 more to apply for a vehicle title.

License tabs, which the Legislature cut in 2000, would bounce back up.

Currently, the cost of registering a car is $189 in the second year, $99 in the third through 10th years, and $35 once a car turns 11 model years old.

Under the House bill, it would cost $189 to register a car in years two and three and $99 from year four on. The Senate fee schedule also is higher than current law, but payments would decrease faster than in the House plan.

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