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Minnesota Legislature overturns transportation veto

ST. PAUL - A long-running Minnesota transportation funding debate ended Monday - at least for some time - when the Legislature overturned Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a $6.6 billion transportation package.

ST. PAUL - A long-running Minnesota transportation funding debate ended Monday - at least for some time - when the Legislature overturned Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a $6.6 billion transportation package.

As a result of the rare legislative move - it was the first time a Pawlenty veto had been overridden - drivers will pay higher gasoline taxes and some Minnesotans will pay more in sales taxes and in license tab fees, all to give state transportation funding a major funding boost.

Supporters said the legislation will improve the transportation system by replacing bridges with serious structural problems, funding more road improvement and construction projects and expanding bus and rail options.

Both legislative bodies had to overturn the veto for the bill to become law. Democrats who control the House needed at least five Republican votes to overturn Pawlenty's veto. They got six and approved the override 91-41. Senators voted 47-20 for the override.

The package increases the gas tax a nickel a gallon this year - by 2 cents within 30 days and another 3 cents this fall - and the increase will top out at 8.5 cents in coming years. Gas tax revenue only can be spent on transportation projects.

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The package spends an average of $660 million annually over 10 years on state and local road projects, bridge improvements and transit expansion.

"People get what they pay for in this bill," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis.

A feisty Pawlenty told reporters via telephone from Washington, where he is chairman of a National Governors' Association meeting, that he did everything he could to let Republicans know that the bill was too heavy with taxes.

"The DFL majority has done what it does best, that is to raise taxes on Minnesota's families," Pawlenty said.

The bill is "ridiculous in scope and in magnitude," he added. "It is a whole basket, a whole bucket of tax increases being dumped on Minnesotans."

The vote marks the first override of a Pawlenty veto since the Republican governor took office in 2003.

The state's 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax was last raised in 1988.

Rep. Bernie Lieder, who leads transportation funding efforts in the House, warned lawmakers that if they did not override the veto, there would be "a long dry spell" before another funding bill was approved.

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"This is a safe roads and bridges bill," Lieder, DFL-Crookston, said. "It does a lot of things which we as a Legislature have not done before."

Lawmakers thought to be on the fence on the override issue faced intense pressure in recent days from political activists, transportation funding advocates and constituents.

The Minnesota Republican Party took the rare - and perhaps unprecedented step - of taking a poll in three Republican-controlled House districts in an attempt to pressure legislators of their own party to sustain Pawlenty's veto.

Reps. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake, Kathy Tingelstad of Andover and Jim Abler of Anoka were targeted. In all three cases, the poll showed transportation was not among voters' top issues and not a main reason they pick particular legislative candidates, state GOP Chairman Ron Carey said.

"It's pretty black and white where Republicans should come down," Carey said, adding that it should not have been with tax increases in the Democrat bill.

Carey termed the poll "helping them see the light." It did not work for any of the three targets; they all voted to override Republican Pawlenty.

Hamilton said he made his decision after consulting fellow legislators, family and friends, constituents and Republican activists in his southwestern Minnesota communities.

"I didn't take it lightly," Hamilton said of his vote, adding that people back home support his position.

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Democrats gained Hamilton's support after a provision was included that would benefit Highway 60 in his district.

Still, Hamilton said he called House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, before the vote to say he would resign from his post as the top Republican on an agriculture committee. Legislators who hold key committee and leadership positions generally are expected to vote with their party. Seifert said Hamilton was not forced to leave the post.

"I didn't feel pressured at all," Hamilton said. "I chose to do that."

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said citizens in his northern Minnesota district do not want tax increases.

"They think it's too big of a bill," said Howes, who voted to sustain Pawlenty's veto.

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Roads in his area of the state are in pretty good shape, Howes added.

Howes said he believes some legislators who backed the override will have second thoughts about that decision after Thursday, when a state budget deficit worse than $373 million is expected to be announced.

"It's a tough call for everybody - no matter what side you're on," Howes said of voting on a veto override.

Two House Democrats who voted against the bill Thursday, including Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba of Long Prairie, returned to their DFL ranks on the override vote.

Otremba said she decided to help overturn the veto after hearing from constituents over the weekend. She said they told her they do not like tax increases, but understood there would be benefits from the legislation, including new construction jobs.

"All of them said: 'We trust you. Go with your heart,'" Otremba said. "That was kind of refreshing."

Otremba also said she believed this was the best transportation package that rural Minnesota will see.

"For a while, anyway," she said.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said he dined in Pelican Rapids over the weekend and nobody sitting with him brought up the transportation funding issue. It is not as big a concern for average Minnesotans as Democrats claim, he said.

"They trust us," Nornes said of Minnesotans. "They hope that we do the right thing, but they're not clamoring for us to raise their taxes today."

Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said this week is not a good time to pass a big tax-funded transportation package given the fact that a new economic forecast containing a larger budget deficit, perhaps up to $1 billion, comes out Thursday.

Added Gimse: "We are dealing with a budget in crisis."

"What are we thinking here?" Gimse asked. "Why can't we wait until after Thursday?"

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said he hears the current projection of a $373 million deficit will grow on Thursday.

"I hear people are going to be real happy if we end up with something less than $1 billion," Ingebrigtsen said.

Pawlenty met with House and Senate Republicans late last week. Some emerged from the House meeting saying that Pawlenty may have given them indirect permission to vote for an override. Pawlenty strongly disagreed.

The GOP governor said that "I repeatedly and explicitly made it clear that this was a bad bill and wanted my veto to be sustained." However, he added, he did tell Republicans determined to override to vote for that right away instead of waiting for future votes.

"We did not in any way tell them that we wanted it to be overridden," he said.

Pawlenty sad he talked to several Republican lawmakers by telephone Monday and sent e-mails to other, all in an unsuccessful effort to convince wavering Republicans to stick with him.

"I feel very good about the veto," he said.

Asked by reporters if he was satisfied with Pawlenty's work to protect the override, Seifert said tersely: "Sure."

Seifert said House Republicans will meet later this week to discuss whether the GOP members who voted to override the governor should see changes to their staffing levels or leadership positions as a result of their vote.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said new state transportation funding is needed because Minnesota has not been able to match federal dollars for projects, including some in his northeastern Minnesota district.

Bakk noted that the state's business community - led by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce - and labor unions supported the legislation.

"This is a pretty easy green vote," Bakk told senators.

Sen. Kate Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, urged fellow senators to support the override. The legislation authorizes funding for bridge repairs. The structurally problematic Hastings Bridge in her district would benefit from the spending package, Sieben said.

Rep. Bud Heidgerken of Freeport was another Republican who helped to override the veto.

"When it's all said and done, you've got to do what's right," he said before the vote. "When I drive home, I don't want to say I did wrong."

Pawlenty twice vetoed transportation funding bills prior to this year, in 2005 and 2007. The House last year failed to override the governor's veto in the session's final minutes.

Pawlenty said that in recent years, only Washington state has approved a big gasoline tax increase.

Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said the Legislature needed to act.

"If you're standing in the same place you're not moving forward, and for 20 years the state has been standing in the same spot," Murphy said. "It's time to move forward and I think we showed that we're willing to do that today."

State Capitol Bureau reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.

Here is a list of how area senators voted Monday on the transportation veto override:

Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, yes

Steve Dille, R-Dassel, yes

Michelle Fischbach R-Paynesville, no

Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, yes

Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, no

Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, no

Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, yes

Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, yes

Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, yes

Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, yes

Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, yes

Pat Pariseau, R-Farmington, no

Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, yes

Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, yes

Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, yes

Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, yes

Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, yes

Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, yes

LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, yes

David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, yes

Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, no

Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, yes

Here is a list of how area representatives voted Monday on the transportation veto override:

Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, yes

Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, yes

Julie Bunn, DFL-Lake Elmo, yes

Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, no

David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, yes

Steve Drazkowski, R- Wabasha, no

Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, yes

Tim Faust, DFL-Mora, yes

Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, no

Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, yes

Larry Haws, DFL-St. Cloud, yes

Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport, yes

Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, yes

Larry Howes, R-Walker, no

Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, yes

Mike Jaros, DFL-Duluth, yes

Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, yes

Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, yes

Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, no

Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, yes

Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, no

Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, yes

Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, no

Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, yes

Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, yes

Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, no

Dave Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls, yes

Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, yes

Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, no

Aaron Peterson, DFL-Appleton, yes

Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, yes

Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, yes

Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, no

Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, yes

Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, yes

Dean Simpson, R-Perham, no

Marsha Swails, DFL-Woodbury, yes

Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, no

Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, no

Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls, yes

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