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Legislative News and Views - Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL)

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Melissa Hortman: The tax questions we ought to ask

Thursday, August 23, 2007
A poll taken shortly after the bridge collapse shows that most Minnesotans still do not want their gas tax increased. That should surprise no one. Any poll asking Minnesotans whether they would like to pay a higher or a lower price for a key commodity would produce the same result. People prefer lower prices. I propose a poll to test my theory. Let's ask Minnesotans, "Upon checkout at the grocery store, do you believe you should be charged $25 or $75 for a cart full of food?" I'll bet that 10 out of 10 times, we will find that a majority of Minnesotans would prefer the lower amount. I'll bet the results wouldn't change even if we asked the question again after providing an explanation about the important role of farmers and truckers in getting the food to our store. A poll on whether Minnesotans want a higher gas tax misses the point entirely -- as policymakers, the question we should ask is: "How many bridges should be safe?" Or: "How many two-lane rural roads with high accident rates need curves made more gentle or shoulders added?" Or: "Do clearly painted stripes help guide you when you are driving at night or in the winter?" Then, the job of the Legislature and governor would be to determine how to meet those needs in a fiscally responsible way. Government 101: Tax fairly, spend effectively. In the United States, we have a republican democracy. Why is that? Elected officials are supposed to lead as well as listen. Lately, it seems we have been seeing a lot of listening, but now we need to exercise leadership. Leadership means telling the truth to the public and taking actions that are in the best interests of this generation and the next. The truth is, our transportation needs far exceed our transportation budget -- by $1.7 billion per year if you are committed to safe roads and bridges, more lanes and new roads where needed, and transit. The truth is, the gas tax is a user fee -- if you use the roads, you pay it, and the more you use the roads, the more you pay. The truth is, the gas tax is constitutionally required to be spent exclusively on transportation. The truth is, because of our reluctance to raise the gas tax for the past two decades, we now raise about one-third of our transportation budget through property taxes on homeowners and businesses. Drivers are heavily subsidized by property-tax payers. The tough, but necessary, course of action is to raise the revenue to meet our unmet needs. The highway user fee -- commonly known as the gas tax -- is one logical and fair way to raise that revenue. The Interstate 35W bridge collapse clearly illustrated, for anyone who didn't believe it before, that roads and bridges do not take care of themselves. The right question isn't "how much would you like to pay for your groceries?" but rather "are you hungry?" and "how long do you want those groceries to last?" Fiscally responsible consumers will certainly take prices and available financial resources into account, but the shoppers will make sure there is food in their cupboards even if the amount charged at checkout is higher than they'd like. Melissa Hortman, a DFLer from Brooklyn Park, is an assistant majority leader in the Minnesota House and represents District 47B.