Tim Pawlenty's no-tax-increase pledge is still a great résumé line in national Republican circles, but three years of huge budget deficits and a notably declining quality of life appear to have left state Republicans as a whole less sympathetic to the demagoguery of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.
Last weekend, the Star Tribune's Minnesota Poll revealed that Pawlenty's fellow Republicans favored a mix of tax increases and budget cuts over adherence to the Taxpayers League pledge, by a solid margin of 47 to 36 percent. (Among all Minnesotans polled, the mandate for some new taxes was 57 to 30 percent.) Two days earlier, Republican Senate Minority Leader Dick Day (R-Owatonna) broke ranks with the governor by proposing a nickel increase in the gas tax and added fees on new and used cars in order to pay for highway construction.
By contrast, Pawlenty has proposed no change in the state's gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1988 and ranks among the lowest in the nation. Instead, the governor wants to bond for more than $4 billion in highway construction money and ask voters to approve a referendum that would siphon more than $2 billion out of the general fund over the next 10 years, adding hundreds of millions of dollars of debt each year to the mountain of red ink already amassed by his policies.
Day notes that the referendum Pawlenty proposes to "fix" the transportation problem "wouldn't be on the ballot until 2006 and we wouldn't get the money until 2007. Meanwhile, traffic is killing people trying to do business in greater Minnesota and in the metro, where people are sitting in steel cocoons of congestion. To me, a gas tax is a real user fee. If you drive 10,000 miles per year, it will cost you $20, and you'll have better, safer roads that are not as congested."
Although he is bucking his own party's leadership, Day has seen evidence that the voters are on his side. "Calls on this issue are showing more for [the gas tax] than against, although the ones against it are pretty perturbed, I can tell you."
Since caving in to Pawlenty's budget priorities two years ago, the DFL has coyly waited for the Republicans to broach the tax issue, a politically shrewd, if fiscally disastrous, decision. Now that Day has finally broken from the no-tax catechism, the Senate Transportation Committee chair, Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), is free to say: "At the end of the day, I think there is going to be an increase in the gas tax. Anytime you have a Republican [meaning Day] saying the governor is a fool not to let this go into law, that is fairly strong language."
Murphy acknowledges that "a lot of work has to be done" to get a gas tax hike through the Republican-controlled House, but adds, "Our constituents are not happy about delays in getting things done. Those who continue to neglect transportation funding will get voted out of office, as they should be."
Day himself has no illusions that Pawlenty will sign legislation containing a gas tax. "But if we get enough votes to send this bill to the governor, I think the governor will say he doesn't like it and then let it go for three days [without a veto] so that it becomes law," he predicts. "That way, he can save face."