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Opinion split on what gas-tax increase would mean

By Matthew Stolle

mstolle@postbulletin.com

ST. PAUL -- Area legislators clashed over the meaning of a 10-cent increase in the gasoline tax and other tax provisions that passed as part of an amendment to the House transportation bill.

Rural Republicans argued that supporters of the bill, particularly rural Democrats, were "hoodwinked," because the bill disproportionately favors the metro area, shifting funding from a 51-49 rural-metro split to a 44-56 split.

Rep. Greg Davids, a Republican from Preston, called the bill "devastating" to rural Minnesota. He said the bill would put $4.2 billion into transportation for the seven-county metro area, but only provides $3.4 billion for the remaining 80 counties.

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"Some of the counties have said, 'Well, we get a little more money.' Well, they were bought off. There's a 10-cent gas tax increase, and they got a few crumbs," Davids said.

But Rochester Democrats said both metro and rural areas would benefit substantially from the bill. Both areas would see new money. But most importantly, the new funding would begin to address the state's troubled transportation system: congested highways in the metro and crumbling roads in rural Minnesota, they said.

Rep. Tina Liebling, a Democrat from Rochester, said she was considering the needs of the entire state when she voted for the bill. She called the rural Republican harping on the metro-rural divide the "politics of fear."

"It's the fear that somebody is going to get something that I'm not getting, and if we're going to think in that way, we're not going to be able to move the state forward," Liebling said.

Supporters cited the support of the Association of Minnesota Counties, an endorsement that several legislators called "historic" because of the organization's inability to reach consensus on much.

But the increase in the House bill still would fall short of addressing all the state's needs, some legislators said. That need has been estimated at $1 billion annually, and the House bill only gets you three-quarters of the way, they said.

Beyond his criticism of what he considered the bill's metro area bias, Rep. Dan Dorman, a Republican from Albert Lea, said the plan creates a $100 million hole in the general fund. Currently, a lot of the sales tax paid on a vehicle goes into the general fund. Under the House plan, that money would flow to transit, which is primarily a metro issue. That creates a hole in 2010. Where would the money come to fill that hole? he questioned.

Reiterating the view voiced by other rural Republicans, Dorman said he couldn't understand why rural Democrats voted for the bill.

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