Minnesota gov: ‘I ran … on raising the [gas] tax’

I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, 2007 | Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s push to hike Michigan’s gas tax to fix crumbling roads and bridges — her signature campaign promise — is hardly occurring in a vacuum. 

Tim Walz

First-term Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a former congressman, also is working to make the case for a gas tax increase in his Upper Midwest state — albeit a significantly smaller 20-cent hike — than the eye-popping 45-cents Whitmer is pushing for.  

Like Whitmer, however, Walz has faced resistance from Republicans in Minnesota, which stands as the only state with a divided state Legislature with a GOP-controlled Senate and Democrats controlling the House. 

On Thursday, Walz made the case for his gas tax increase on the “1A with Joshua Johnson” radio program, using at times almost-identical language to that espoused by Whitmer when she’s touting her proposal: The gas tax is revenue that is “constitutionally dedicated” to go towards road and bridge maintenance and that poor infrastructure is a safety issue. 

When speaking on what compels her to want the roads fixed, Whitmer often points to the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis as an example of where Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure is headed without billions of dollars in investment. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks about her infrastructure plan in Grand Rapids, June 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

Walz calls the gas tax “a real solution,” something Whitmer often says, in that it allows the Legislature to cease moving around dollars from the General Fund — the state’s main discretionary spending account — for road repairs, which has become standard practice in Michigan. 

Walz indicated that’s also been common in his state.

“I ran for governor, on raising the [gas] tax and in telling people honestly, what it was going to take to do it,” Walz said. “Now there’s a school of thought that says, ‘Yeah, there’s surplus we have, we have extra [so] start pulling it from the General Fund.’ And then you get a recession, and then there’s no money for health care or education.”

Whitmer and Walz have teamed up this year on Great Lakes issues, including opposing President Donald Trump’s changes to the Clean Water Act.

Should Whitmer’s full 45-cent gas tax proposal be implemented — which seems unlikely at this point with Michigan’s GOP legislative leaders firmly against the measure — it would give the state, by far, the highest gas tax in the country. Michiganders currently pay about 42.5 cents in total taxes at the pump, according to the Tax Foundation. 

Biz leaders make push for new road revenue as Whitmer, GOP leaders keep talking

By comparison, folks in Golden Gopher country only pay 28.6 cents, so a 20-cent raise proposed by Walz would only put Minnesota about 6 cents above where Michigan stands currently. 

Minnesota, like Michigan, uses “user fees” like gas taxes and registration fees as major revenue drivers for roads. Minnesota, however, also applies sales-tax revenue from vehicle sales as another funding stream. 

Michigan, meanwhile, has its own complicated system, wherein about one-third of the taxes collected at the pump get diverted for uses other than roads, namely schools and revenue sharing with local units of government. 

Untangling that system has been a key goal for state House Republicans in Michigan this year, but Whitmer has argued it harms school funding, while GOP leadership insist their budget plans will boost education. 

Whitmer wants to fix the damn roads. Citizens wonder why the last tax hike wasn’t enough.

Gas tax increases have been a popular mechanism for state governments to raise revenue around the country this year. 

New Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation in June doubling the state’s gas tax to 38 cents and Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also signed a gas tax increase this summer. The state’s legislature is also controlled by the GOP.

Mike DeWine
Mike Dewine

Whitmer has said she doesn’t want to raise taxes, but she views the gas tax as the most sensible solution to quickly raise the money needed to fix roads to get them in good condition, which currently would take roughly $2.5 billion more annually, according to several studies.

Walz said on Thursday he hopes to join those aforementioned Midwest governors in signing legislation that hikes the gas tax. 

“Mike DeWine has a Republican House, a Republican Senate. He’s a Republican governor, he passed a gas tax this year because of the necessity of fixing the roads, Walz said. “So I will advocate for whatever it takes to get to do that and make the case to Minnesotans that this is actually a money saver.”

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