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House OKs transportation funding bill raising gas tax

ST. PAUL - The Legislature moved closer Saturday to sending a veto-bound transportation bill to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty as the Minnesota House passed a tax-laden package on a mostly partisan vote.

ST. PAUL - The Legislature moved closer Saturday to sending a veto-bound transportation bill to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty as the Minnesota House passed a tax-laden package on a mostly partisan vote.

The 83-46 vote came after four hours of debate and more than a dozen failed amendments from GOP representatives, who blamed the Democratic majority for being unwilling to cooperate on a less costly road and transit plan.

"It isn't what everybody wants, but we think it's what we need," said DFL Rep. Bernie Lieder of Crookston, bill sponsor and House transportation finance committee chairman.

Both legislative chambers met Saturday; the House focused on transportation funding, while senators considered several high-profile bills.

The next stop for transportation, which has divided DFL lawmakers and Pawlenty for several years, will be a House-Senate conference committee where lawmakers will iron out differences in their bills.


Both proposals call for a

dime-per-gallon gasoline tax increase, higher vehicle registration and licensing fees and potential sales tax increases to pay for transportation projects. The 20-cent-per-gallon state fuel tax was last increased nearly 20 years ago.

Five House Republicans peeled off and sided with the DFL majority; four Democrats opposed the bill to provide roughly $700 million per year in highway construction and bus and rail improvements.

Veto override?

House Democrats quickly reviewed the vote total, speculating whether they could gain the seven additional votes needed to override Pawlenty's promised veto.

"We could be awfully close," Lieder said.

Steve Murphy, the Senate's transportation chief, said he could garner the support needed in his chamber.

"We can massage things so that we can get enough votes to override a veto," Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said after his bill passed Friday.


The flurry of legislative activity was unusual for a Saturday in March. Nearly two months remain before the Legislature's May 21 constitutional adjournment, but both chambers face deadlines for approving spending bills.

State smoking banA movement to ban smoking in most public places took another turn when the Senate Finance Committee stripped provisions delaying implementation of the ban for restaurants and bars. Under the changes, the ban would go into effect later this year but restaurants and bars could offer an outdoor patio for smokers.

A measure allowing indoor smoking rooms as an alternative to a patio also was removed. An economic development committee with several rural legislators had added the provision earlier.

Smoking ban sponsor Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said the changes please people worried about workers' health but also addresses concerns raised by restaurants and bars. The full Senate could vote on the smoking ban Monday or Tuesday.

Outdoors, artsThe finance committee also reworked a plan asking Minnesota voters to constitutionally dedicate new sales tax revenue to the outdoors and arts programs.

The panel approved a ballot measure to raise the state sales tax by ~ of 1 percent. Revenue would be split 33 percent to habitat preservation; 43 percent to water cleanup efforts and trail protection; and 24 percent to arts and arts education.

Supporters said dedicating funds is necessary because the programs can't compete with other budget areas, such as education or health care.

The revised dedicated funding bill was sent to the Senate Taxes Committee for further consideration.


In other action

-- By a vote of 42-20, senators approved a bill funding state agencies, despite objections to a provision allowing same-sex partners of state workers to purchase state health insurance benefits. Pawlenty opposes the measure and could reject the state government finance bill if the partner-benefits provision isn't removed before final legislative action.

-- Both the House and Senate approved a bill to let the Rural Finance Authority administer $30 million in ag loans across the state.

"This bill will also make it easier for beginning farmers to get into farming, as well as help existing farms become more competitive," said DFL Rep. Al Juhnke of Willmar.

-- The Senate Finance Committee reviewed an economic development funding bill but kept it from advancing to the Senate floor because of concerns over proposals in it.

Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.

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