Tuesday, February 12, 2008 By Aaron Brown
Minn. lawmakers plan to burst out of session starting gate
By MARTIGA LOHN and BRIAN BAKST
The Associated Press
ST. PAUL -- Big-ticket items like a long-range transportation spending plan and $1 billion worth of state building projects will get early and prominent billing as the Minnesota Legislature opens its 2008 session.
The Democrats in charge of the Legislature left no doubt about the pace of the session as they promised to rush through those two priority bills and a ballot measure asking voters to raise the sales tax and dedicate the proceeds to environment and arts programs. Final votes on the ballot measure are expected this week.
"Members are fired up and ready to go to produce a really fast, efficient and effective session," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said Monday.
Legislative leaders promised to unveil a transportation plan Tuesday that would raise the gas tax for roads and add a metropolitan sales tax for mass transit.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said the bill includes a permanent but phased-in 5-cent increase in the gas tax with allowances to temporarily raise it 2.5 cents more if road construction debt exceeds a certain level.
The bill would put at least $11 billion into transportation over the next decade. Murphy hopes to have the bill on Gov. Tim Pawlenty's desk before March, and if it runs into a veto, override the Republican governor by Easter.
Hints of the fierce partisanship that left a bitter aftertaste to the 2007 session appeared on Monday, even as leaders of both parties talked about mending the state's tattered economy. The stakes are even higher this year as a budget deficit deepens and the state recovers from the deadly Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
Kelliher and DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller lamented that the state was lagging its peers in academic research spending, job growth and other economic indicators, with Pogemiller saying Minnesota appears "to be on a march to mediocrity."
Republicans, including Pawlenty's administration, countered that Democrats were offering the wrong recipe for the state's woes.
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung noted that two of the first three bills the Legislature plans to pass rely on tax increases.
"Our concern is that when Democrats talk about jump-starting, they're going to attach the jumper cables to your wallet," McClung said. "This is not the direction we should be heading in when we have a tough economy."
Still, Pawlenty is open to a nickel per gallon increase in the current 20-cent gas tax if it is offset by a tax decrease elsewhere, McClung said.
And Pawlenty doesn't have a say on the environment and arts constitutional amendment, which will appear on the ballot if both the House and Senate give it majority votes. The sales tax would rise 3/8ths of 1 percent, with four of every five new dollars going to water cleanup, wildlife habitat protection and park upkeep.