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Pawlenty may back higher gas tax in special session

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ST. PAUL - Gov. Tim Pawlenty may lift his long-held opposition to raising Minnesota's gasoline tax if he calls a special legislative session, as expected, following a deadly Minneapolis bridge collapse.

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Pawlenty on Friday said a special session to increase transportation funding is likely. Late Friday afternoon, the governor's spokesman said Pawlenty may do a turn-about and support a gasoline tax increase if lawmakers consider some of his transportation funding ideas.

The highlight of a special session probably would be a bill to help close what officials say is a $1.7 billion annual shortage of transportation funds.

The Republican governor and Democratic-controlled Legislature agree on the need for more transportation money, but have not agreed on how to fund it. Pawlenty prefers borrowing money, while Democrats call for higher gasoline taxes.

Pawlenty's transportation commissioner, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, did not sound like she could back a higher tax. She said the gasoline tax would have to rise up to 35 cents to bring in as much money as many say is needed.

"I don't think the motoring public nor the commerce in this state could sustain that," Molnau said.

Minnesota's gas tax has not increased from 20 cents per gallon since 1988. Recent proposals would up it a nickel to a dime a gallon.

A long-time Democratic transportation leader said he expects a special session to include not only a major transportation funding package, but also a tax bill that could reduce property taxes and a measure to fund public construction projects.

Sen. Keith Langseth of Glyndon, long a legislative transportation expert, said lawmakers are not capitalizing on Wednesday's Minneapolis bridge collapse by calling for more overall transportation spending. The disaster shows why more dollars are needed, he said.

"Is there anything to dramatize the need more than this did?" asked Langseth.

Legislative leaders on Friday agreed a special session is needed, although Republican House leader Marty Seifert of Marshall, on a public radio show, encouraged colleagues not to "come rushing in."

A special session probably would be called after Labor Day.

Democrats, who often blame Pawlenty's penny-pinching approach for a variety of state problems, avoided doing that in the bridge collapse.

"I've never been opportunistic," Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said.

Murphy, the Senate transportation chairman, said aging transportation structures, such as the 40-year-old Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed, are getting worse and more expensive to fix.

Even if the Legislature had reached agreement with Pawlenty on a transportation bill earlier this year, it would not have prevented the bridge disaster, Langseth acknowledged.

"It can head off some of the problems in the future," he said.

Langseth said that the governor should be prepared to approve a major transportation spending bill that includes a gasoline tax increase.

"Now, when the people are still in the river, this 5-cent (per gallon) gas tax on $3 doesn't mean much," he said.

House Transportation Chairman Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, agreed that the bridge collapse should inspire Pawlenty to ease his opposition to raising the gasoline tax.

After Pawlenty vetoed Murphy's transportation bill this year, the senator warned that carnage on Minnesota roads would continue without new transportation funding.

To say whether Wednesday's catastrophe was a manifestation of that "would be speculating" and "sophomoric," Murphy said.

Murphy and Lieder will be two members of a 10-person committee House and Senate leaders will appoint in coming days to look into the bridge collapse. The panel is expected to meet the week of Aug. 13.

"The public not only wants but needs to know what went wrong," said Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis. "Are other bridges safe and how did our bridge inspection system fail? We pledge to seek answers to those questions as quickly, fairly and openly as is practical."

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While Minnesota legislators look forward to a special session, the U.S. House on Friday unanimously approved a Rep. Jim Oberstar measure to provide $250 million in federal spending to replace the Minneapolis bridge. The Senate could follow in the next few days before leaving for a month-long recess.

President Bush, who visits the Mississippi River bridge collapse site today, supports increased federal financial help for Minneapolis, his spokesman said Friday.

Minnesota officials said Friday they don't know how much clean-up and bridge replacement will cost, although it would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. They also could not say how much an aggressive new bridge inspection program would cost or how much the federal government would pay.

Reporter Scott Wente of the Forum Communications State Capitol Bureau contributed to this story. Also contributing was Mike Longaecker of the Red Wing Republican Eagle.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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