ST. PAUL -- Minnesota lawmakers proposing a gasoline tax increase for transportation projects recruited a heavy hitter Tuesday to draw attention to their cause.
U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar entered a packed legislative hearing room to applause and proceeded to explain Minnesota's transportation demands, sometimes in great detail, and the need for new state money to address them.
Oberstar represents northeastern Minnesota's 8th District in Congress, but lawmakers brought him to the Capitol because of his powerful role as House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman.
The unusual meeting was a blend of transportation discussion and lobbying, with supporters of a gas tax increase using it to pressure Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislators who oppose the idea.
"The state needs to raise its own effort," Oberstar insisted of a gas tax hike during a news conference. Without more state funds, Minnesota could miss out on some of the $4.3 billion in federal dollars targeted for the state through 2009, he said.
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor's position hasn't changed.
"We've been around Minnesota and people say they pay enough for gas as it is," McClung said, "and so we think it's important to try to look for innovative ways to increase transportation funding."
The veteran congressman was invited to the Capitol by Sen. Steve Murphy and Rep. Bernie Lieder, who lead transportation funding committees in the Senate and House.
Proponents of a gas tax increase needed to get the public's attention, and Oberstar did that, Lieder said.
"I think he certainly brought the message home," said Lieder, DFL-Crookston.
Murphy, who has butted heads with Pawlenty over the state's gas tax, said he's ready to push a dime-per-gallon increase in this year. Enough senators are on board to override a Pawlenty veto should that happen, he said.
"This is an issue that's not going away," Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said.
Transportation leaders in the Legislature don't want to send Pawlenty a bill he will veto, but that could be an option, Lieder said.
"If they want to raise the gas tax that badly, then they certainly could pass a bill and watch it get vetoed," McClung said. "What they choose to do beyond that is their call."
Minnesota voters last November passed a constitutional amendment to dedicate all of the state motor vehicle sales tax revenue to transportation. Oberstar said he supported that measure but it provides only a small portion of the funding needed for Minnesota highway and transit projects.
"It's not enough, in and of itself," the Chisholm Democrat said.
Sen. Rod Skoe, another transportation committee member, said people need to know the state is missing out on federal funds because it's not providing enough of its own.
"That should be disconcerting to Minnesotans," said Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook. "It certainly is to the Legislature."
Oberstar told lawmakers to consider approving a 5- or 10-cent per gallon increase in the highway "user fee." The 20-cent-per-gallon tax has remained unchanged for nearly two decades.
"If you do the right thing, people understand it and they support you," Oberstar said.
Too often events similar to the Oberstar appearance have political overtones, said Rep. Doug Magnus.
"There's some of that here," said Magnus, a House transportation committee member.
Still, the Slayton Republican said Oberstar's visit was beneficial because he also talked about highways and railroads in southwestern Minnesota.
Magnus said he doubts Oberstar's appearance influenced the simmering Capitol debate over transportation dollars.
Others think it did.
"I think it puts additional pressure on the Republicans in the Senate and the House to be ready for an override," Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said.
One of those Republicans could be Sen. Joe Gimse of Willmar. Gimse said he viewed the meeting as informational, but noticed the focus on transportation funding.
"There were a lot of bold statements, and I guess that was probably the time," said Gimse, a first-term legislator.
Gimse said he could support a "modest" gas tax hike, such as 5 cents per gallon, but doesn't know whether he would help override a possible Pawlenty veto.
"That really, for me, depends on the legislation," Gimse said.