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Gas tax bill appears likely during the '08 session, but so does a veto

WILLMAR -- When Sen. Steve Dille was a member of the House of Representatives, he was one of just five Republicans to vote in favor of a gas tax increase.

The year was 1988 -- the last time Minnesota raised its gas tax.

The Republican leadership didn't favor the increase at the time, said the Dassel legislator, who is proud of the vote he took 20 years ago.

"History has shown that was the right thing to do," Dille said.

Now a senator, Dille said he intends to vote for a 7½-cent gas tax increase that is expected to be proposed during this legislative session, which begins Tuesday.

"I want to do the same thing I did in 1988," Dille said.

Based on reports from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Dille said Minnesota needs $1.8 billion a year for the next 10 years "just to catch up" on state and local road and bridge projects.

A 7½-cent gas tax increase would raise about $700,000. Other possible provisions in a bill could include other fee increases that would raise additional revenue for the cash-strapped agency. A bill that's similar to the one the Legislature approved last year, and was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, is expected to be heard early in the session.

Like last year, it's expected the bill will pass the House and Senate, and most expect the bill will again be vetoed.

Last year an attempt to override the veto failed in the House.

Even though a Democratic majority guarantees a veto override in the Senate without Republican help, Dille said he'll also vote to override a veto.

The gas tax is an issue where he "disagrees" with the governor, he said.

Before the Senate gets a chance to override a veto, however, the House must over-ride a veto.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, is making no commitment on his gas tax vote until he sees exactly what's in the bill. Urdahl said he wants to see a transportation bill that "gives sustainable funding to our local government units" who build roads and bridges.

Urdahl, who voted for the transportation bill but voted against the veto override last year, is making no predictions on whether a veto attempt will succeed this year in the House.

"It will be vetoed," he said. "And then I don't know what will happen."

Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, doubts an override is possible in the House, but said he has a gut feeling that if a "good, common sense" bill is presented to the governor it'll "fare well."

Gimse said there are "indications from the governor's office" that he would be receptive to a gas tax increase.

Dille said, however, any gas tax approved by the governor would likely have to be off-set by a decrease somewhere else, making it a revenue-neutral move.

So far, said Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, "the governor's been unable to find a transportation bill he's willing to sign."

When polled, Dille said about 70 percent of Minnesotans will say they don't want a higher gas tax. But that doesn't mean legislators shouldn't vote for a gas tax increase.

"Once in a while you have to provide leadership," he said, adding that the state "definitely" needs the transportation money.

Given the state's needs for transportation improvements, Dille said the only reason he can see for voting against, or vetoing, a gas tax increase is for "political considerations."