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Gas tax the top topic of talk

by Steve Schulz,


Rep. Dean Simpson (R -- Perham) and Sen. Dan Skogen (DFL -- Hewitt) discussed a wide range of topics with 23 area residents in a town-hall meeting Feb. 2 at Pizza Ranch in Wadena, but two main themes emerged: taxes and roads.

Put them together, and you have the one topic that dominated almost half of the give-and-take with their constituents: the gas tax.

The two men from opposing political parties ended up agreeing with each other more often than not, citing the rural vs. metro division in the Legislature more than the Republican vs. DFL.

When it came to the gas tax, both legislators agreed on the problem.

"We do know we need more dollars for the roads," Simpsonsaid.

The answers aren't as clear, the two said.

The state's gas tax hasn't been raised since 1988, Skogen said. Raising the tax on each gallon of gasoline has a couple of problems, the legislators said. First of all, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has threatened to veto a current proposal of a 10 cent per gallon hike, Skogen said.

Plus, with vehicles getting more efficient, that may lock in a declining source of revenue, Simpson said.

"We're seeing vehicles with 30, 40 or 50 miles per gallon now," Simpson said. "Is a gas tax really the answer?"

If one member of the audience had his way, that answer is "no."

Wally Anderson of trucking company Polman Transfer recited some statistics about what his business already pays to be on the road.

With its 91 trucks, Polman paid $250,000 in state gas tax at the pumps in 2006, and $368,897 in federal gas tax, Anderson said. Add in a Super Fund environmental tax, a highway use tax, state sales tax, excise tax, real estate tax and payroll tax, and Anderson figured the business paid $974,823.96 in taxes in 2006.

A hike in the gas tax? Anderson said that's not the answer.

Other proposals for funding include a "wheelage tax" and a rollback of the license tab fees put in place by Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Roads aren't the only need in transportation funding, Skogen reminded residents.

"I'd love to go down to St. Cloud some day and get on a train and read a newspaper the rest of the way," he said, noting the benefits of a light rail connection between that city and Minneapolis.

Other than transportation, the legislators were asked for their support for a number of programs, from all-day, every-day kindergarten to higher education funding, property tax relief to Clean Water Legacy funding.

While legislators await the February budget forecast, the numbers Simpson said will be the firm figures needed to base a two-year budget on, most budget proposals right now are building in an increase in spending of about 9 percent.

"We're spending $809.31 per second in the state of Minnesota," Simpson said of the proposed $32 billion budget.