Legislature should raise gas tax itself

Politicians must finally increase the gas tax, which has not gone up since 1988.

Last week, the House Transportation Finance Committee defeated a proposal to increase Minnesota’s gas tax by a nickel. In contrast, the Senate Transportation Budget Division approved of a tax increase of 4 cents this year and an additional 3 cent increase in 2007.

Something has got to give. Politicians must finally step up and increase the gas tax, which has remained static since 1988.

There was another proposal before the same House committee, one that would put the gas tax increase to a statewide referendum in 2006. This move also failed, thankfully. It was a cowardly attempt to shift responsibility to residents, made by politicians hoping to avoid the gas tax increase, as the word “tax” makes a referendum unlikely to pass. Those who support the referendum are seeking political cover and lack the resolve necessary to be forthright about what faces Minnesota. This is not what we need from our leaders.

While most of the resistence seems to come from Republicans, some recognize the current need for increased state revenues. Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna, has been brave enough to propose a nickel increase in the gas tax.

In contrast, committee Chairwoman Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, cannot seem to get through a sentence on the topic without reminding us of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s “no new taxes” pledge. Pawlenty is a grown man who can speak for himself. And, incidentally, he has. Pawlenty has questioned the wisdom of a gas tax increase but has not promised a veto.

In the end, it’s likely Pawlenty would love to keep his pledge, if only for political purposes. But one can make the argument the gas tax is a user fee, as it goes directly to related spending – so Pawlenty can allow it without breaking his “no new taxes” pledge. Either way, the looming budget deficit should force him to reconsider that position. Just a nickel increase would reap rewards of an estimated $160 million a year. The state badly needs this money. If the Legislature can pass the increase, Pawlenty should not veto it.

Legislators must make tough decisions about what’s best for the state. That is, after all, the job they were hired for. Who decides to step up and increase the gas tax will determine which leaders are more worried about political careers and which care more for the well-being of the state.