Legislature should raise the gas tax

A modest increase would help improve Minnesota’s highways and ease congestion.

The shift in the balance of power in the Minnesota House following last week’s elections has once again raised the possibility of a hike in the state’s gas tax. That’s good news for our ailing highway system. Nothing would do more to immediately ease congestion and improve road quality than a modest increase in the state gas tax.

A change is long overdue. The state gas tax currently sits at 20 cents per gallon ñ what it’s been for the last 16 years. Over the same period, the population of the Twin Cities has grown substantially, expanding suburbs outward and straining the capacity of metro area highways. Rural Minnesota has suffered too, with many two-lane highways in obvious disrepair.

Most funding for improving or expanding highways comes directly from gas-tax revenue. When that funding does not keep pace with a growth, Minnesotans pay daily with congested commutes over pot-holed roads. Previous efforts to increase the state gas tax have met stiff resistance from Republican legislators.

In recent years, the anti-tax camp has coalesced around Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his “no-new-taxes” pledge. That promise was borne of the conviction that Minnesotans are taxed enough and government should be starved down to size. But it has also locked the state into a budgetary straitjacket at a time when public resources are dwindling and public needs are multiplying. The current backlog of road construction projects is only one sign of the need for a new approach to taxes in Minnesota.

The Republican take on taxes is increasingly at odds with a feisty electorate. Voter frustration with the trasnportation system was likely a key factor in the defeat of several House incumbents.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party bloc in the House should flex its new muscle by pushing for a 5 cent hike in the gas tax. Targeted subsidies for low-income individuals and small businesses could help offset the regressive impact of an increase. A new gas tax proposal would force Republicans to choose between fealty to an outdated pledge and badly needed roads for Minnesota drivers.