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Democrats ready to move ahead on transportation, with or without governor

By Scott Wente

St. Paul Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Legislature's upcoming battle over transportation spending could lack a key element of most Capitol funding decisions: negotiations with the governor.

After more than three years of failing to reach a deal on transportation funding with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and six months since the Minneapolis bridge collapse, top Democratic lawmakers say they will take a different route this year.

The 2008 legislative session convenes Feb. 12, but Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers already are working on a road, bridge and transit funding bill and plan to send it to the governor early in the session.

Those ongoing discussions do not involve Republican Pawlenty.

"He's not really a factor," Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said of Pawlenty. "He wants us to compromise to his position; that's not going to happen."

"We're going to pass a bill, the governor's going to veto it and we're going to try to override it," Murphy added.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor has met with a number of legislators over the past several weeks as the session nears. McClung said the governor has not been talking with Democrats about details of a compromise transportation funding package, but said there is plenty of time for that to occur.

"From our viewpoint, that's a better way to approach it," McClung said, "rather than Democrats just passing a bill that they passed last year, sending it back, going through that machination."

Rep. Bernie Lieder, chairman of the House Transportation Finance Division, said legislators know Pawlenty's position, but they must move ahead to begin dealing with up to $2.4 billion of annual transportation needs.

"We've reached a point where you can't defer any more maintenance," Lieder said.

Several factors will make this year's transportation funding debate - and the outcome - different than the rifts between Pawlenty and Democrats in previous years.

After the Minneapolis bridge collapse six months ago that left 13 dead and more than 100 injured, Democrats and Republicans pledged cooperation to address the state's transportation problems. Pawlenty offered perhaps the biggest concession from his earlier position on transportation funding when he said he would consider supporting a gasoline tax increase for road and bridge projects.

That increase would have to be offset by cuts to other taxes, he said.

Offsetting a gas tax hike is not acceptable because it would require cutting education funding or other budget areas, Murphy said. Democrats plan to push a bill that includes a per-gallon gas tax increase of between 5 cents and a dime, he said. They also want to increase license tab fees, but are considering offering reduced tab fees on new vehicles that are more efficient or run on biofuels, Murphy said.

A sales tax increase in the Twin Cities area to pay for transit also will be in the DFL plan and it will not be tied to a voter referendum, Murphy said.

"It if was good enough for the Twins stadium, it's good enough for transit," Murphy said, referring to Pawlenty's support for a Hennepin County sales tax hike that helped to pay for the new baseball park.

Pawlenty said Democrats' expensive transportation wish list makes an agreement difficult.

"There's a lot of people in the Legislature and on our side who want to get something done," he said, "but when you throw in this whole bucket of transit issues and how big the other tax increases have to be ... that gets to be exponentially more complex and more controversial."

The consensus Pawlenty and lawmaker vowed to reach after the Minneapolis bridge collapse is difficult to find as the legislative session nears.

Pawlenty's "hard stance has kind of taken him out of the debate," House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said.

"Since the beginning, he's been the roadblock and he's consistently, I think, taken himself out of the negotiations, but if he's willing to enter back in we're always willing to listen," Sertich continued.

McClung said: "We're willing to back off of our long-held position against any tax and then we would expect them to reciprocate."

Legislators and the governor may be in the midst of a raging transportation debate - from bridge safety to road problems to transit issues - but it may not be a priority for most Minnesotans.

A poll by Minnesota Public Radio and the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs ranks transportation fifth among the state's most important problems for the 917 people polled.

Also, the poll concluded that 49 percent of respondents support a nickel-per-gallon gas tax hike; the same number disapproved of that.

A recent decision by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to support a 7.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike also could change the dynamic at the Capitol this year. Previously, the influential business group backed only a nickel-per-gallon increase.