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Progressive Politics in Minnesota, the Nation, and the World

Gas Tax: Pawlenty's Moment of Political Courage?

Category: Tim Pawlenty
Posted: 08/10/07 16:35, Edited: 08/20/07 13:58

by Dave Mindeman

Let's talk the politics of the gas tax. In today's Star Tribune Opinion Exchange is a piece by Rep. Mark Buesgens from District 35B. He outlines the push back that will be used to put pressure on Governor Pawlenty to back off of his willingness to look at the gas tax for infrastructure. As Buesgens has determined, we shouldn't be making any tax decisions on emotion.... we should use a "reasoned" approach.

As he put it himself, "calling a special session now virtually ensures a gas tax increase".

I do not understand how you can look at transportation in Minnesota and not see the essential need for a gas tax. We can't borrow our way out of this. We have transferred and shifted funds in and out of transportation money so many times to balance budgets, it is hard to know what the real budgetary allowance is.

We could start by making sure transportation money stays put. No more shifts to other areas. And along with that, don't cut other areas to shift money back into transportation. That will only complicate other budgetary constraints.

Secondly, an increase in the gas tax is simply the fiscally responsible thing to do. We were $1.7 billion (that is a figure Pawlenty agrees with) behind on budget needs before the bridge collapse, and we will certainly see more requests for repairs,

But, let's digress a moment and discuss the politics of the gas tax. As many of you are aware, KSTP did a Survey USA poll about the gas tax, asking Minnesotans if they favored a gas tax to pay for infrastructure repairs. As the GOP is quick to point out, 57% said NO.

Republicans will smugly point to that poll during their no-tax arguments but they will leave out some important notes about public perceptions of gasoline taxes and energy questions.

Many polls have been done on public sentiment for gas taxes over the past few years. In February of 2006, a nationwide poll on this subject was conducted and when asked their opinion on increasing the gas tax, 85% said no. However, the same polls asked the additional question, "Would you support a gas tax increase if the money was used to reduce carbon emissions attributed to global warming or lessen dependence on foreign oil? 55% would support the tax under those conditions. Note, the two questions were asked in the same poll.

In April of 2007, another CBS/NY Times polls asked the following question:
"Would you be willing or not willing to pay higher taxes on gasoline and other fuels if the money was used for research into renewable sources like solar and wind energy?"

64% said yes.

In May of 2007, an MPR poll showed that 51% supported the nickel gas tax the DFL was proposing legislatively. Support dropped when asked to support a 10 cent increase.

In July of 2007, Rasmussen did a national poll on a Rep. John Dingell proposal of a 50 cent gas tax increase to fund road related projects. An overwhelming 86% opposed it..... however, in the very same poll 53% favored an increase in income taxes on people making $200,000 or more a year.

In May of 2007, another CBS/NY Times poll found the following:
67% favored tougher CAFE standards'
83% think they are being gouged at the pump.
70% favored a windfall profits tax on oil companies.
78% favored increased spending on alternative energy.

The real point is that people want some solutions but if taxes are involved, they want it connected to the problem. Gas taxes in light of current prices are hard to swallow, but people are willing to do it under circumstances they can understand.

A gasoline tax is a regressive tax. It hurts lower income people more than the wealthy. That is why support is generally poor when the question is a simple yes or no. The only redeeming value of a gas tax is that it can be a user fee if government would stop playing with money shifting and stick to a dedicated use.

Almost always, if you have a qualifier or a reason for the gas tax increase to occur, support will always climb.

Taxes should be a last resort.... and the truth is, we have done the borrowing thing to a fault. We have shifted money around to a dizzying degree. We have put off vital projects..... and we have even tried the embarrassing avenue of asking contractors to "float" us loans on MNDOT projects (The Crosstown).

Frankly, it would be nice if wealthier Minnesotans would put in a fairer share of the repair bill.... after all, the movement of goods and services are critical for a healthy corporate and business climate. But, that is a discussion for another day.

The needs are immediate and although the public may not like it, a gas tax is something they will accept if it is really utilized for the purpose intended. It is a dedicated repair bill..... not another avenue for a shifting budget balancing strategy.

This is also not simply an emotional response to a tragedy.... we have been through talks and discussions on gas taxes for years and have not acted since 1988.

We need to fix this. Governor Pawlenty got high marks for his handling of the bridge crisis..... now he needs to show some political courage and do the right thing. Call the special session...raise the gas tax and fix the bridges.

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Action Required...We Get None

Category: US Politics
Posted: 08/09/07 13:44

by Dave Mindeman

During the AFL-CIO debate on Tuesday, a woman who lost a spouse in the Sago Mine disaster, asked Senator Biden about mine safety and what we need to do. Senator Biden gave a quick, terse answer to her question and then went back to a foreign policy point he wanted to make about Pakistan. It looked like Biden was just blowing her off..... and he apologized for that on the Countdown show last night.

He was able to give a clearer answer later and it coincides somewhat with the Minnesota bridge collapse. The mine disaster prompted a commission that studied mine safety and came up with recommendations. Biden pointed out that the Bush administration has ignored them.... and Congress has not given any of them the force of law. Likewise, the Minnesota bridge disaster has prompted calls for investigations into infrastructure. Those inquiries will take time...time enough for us to forget the urgency and time for the Bush administration to distract us to other topics of concern.

The Iraq study group, the Sago mine study, and now the promises on our bridges..... all of it requires action. We get none.
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Fancy Ways to Say No to Taxes

Category: Minnesota Politics
Posted: 08/09/07 11:59

by Dave Mindeman

The Republican argument about taxes is looking for a new spin. It looks like the argument is going to center around..."we have enough money, we just need to spend it more wisely."

A GOP conservative website called Wright County Republican gives us a 4 point program for solving our infrastructure. It defies logic, and I'd like to examine it here. The 4 point program is in bold italics:

1. Make it a law that infrastructure and transit will never be in the same bill again. Let the issues stand clearly on their own merits. Deficit causes like transit can be funded but we should see them for the economic pariah that they truly are.

The old Krinkie/Molnau argument. Transit is bad, even though all evidence is to the contrary. We are the only major metropolitan area that doesn't have a full mass tranist option in place. Even Governor Pawlenty understands the need with his funding of the Northstar Line. It is a huge investment, no question. But to assume that transit is not part of the overall transportation solution is like saying 20th century technology is all we will ever need. Our problem for years is a lack of forward thinking leadership. We can get by with patches and band-aids, but the state will eventually fall behind in business climate, tourism, and commuting....without a comprehensive plan.

2. Immediately seize every penny of the current sales tax that is derived from automotive supplies and driving related items and dedicate it directly to the new Infrastructure Fund. (tires, batteries, car repairs, wipers, washer fluid, replacement bulbs, armour-all, window tinting, spinner hubs, after market toys, etc)

Essentially he is saying that infrastructure maintenance needs more money, but we need to siphon it off of other budget areas. In reality, it is just spending cuts with a fancy name. It isn't a bad idea to use the tax on automotive parts, etc., and use thel money directly for transportation.... but all you are doing is shifting money from one area to another. Obviously if you implement this idea, you have to cut somewhere else.... health care? education? what?

3. Consider making the infrastructure fund a one stop spending vehicle that is independent from MNDOT management.

So, you want to create another department? More bureaucracy? I thought you wanted smaller government? Who is going to fund that?

4. Set up a bid timetable that captures every piece of substandard bridging and roadway. Get private companies to bid/bond/guarantee every project up front. Pay them a reasonable margin. Make their work tax free.

How is this different from normal projects? If we identify every substandard project and then put the projects out for bids....uh, I think that is what we already do. If you want to make the work tax free... well, then we have essentially cut the budget furthur.

I don't think Mr. Wright County Republican has actually thought this through all the way. I doubt there has been any budget analysis or long term projections. It is another "no taxer" making stuff up.

We have to start paying for things. Unfortunately, the state's only revenue source is taxation. Nobody likes them but the state's responsibility is the safety of its citizens. That has been compromised and a slight raise in the gas taxes is a small price to pay to keep Minnesota at the top of its game.

We need tangible solutions, not word games.


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