Veto Override - Transportation Funding

Photo by uberculture.
 "We're willing to consider all options, including a gas tax," said Governor Tim Pawlenty’s spokesperson Brian McClung [1] in the days after the 35W Bridge collapse.


This turnaround on taxes was a surprise to many. In 2002, around the time of his election, Pawlenty signed the Taxpayers League of Minnesota’s no new taxes pledge, and he has stuck to that pledge during his time in office—Pawlenty vetoed transportation bills in both 2005 and May 2007, just months before the 35W Bridge collapse.


So when McClung went on to say, “Yes, it’s accurate to describe this as a breaking of the pledge. But these are extraordinary circumstances. The governor feels we need to come together and work as aggressively as we can to address these issues. He thinks that’s the right thing for our state.” [2]


Pawlenty also said, “Nobody likes the gas tax. I don't particularly like it myself. But we have a divided government, somebody has to extend the olive branch and try to bring the sides together so we can make some progress." [3] But the bill that was eventually presented to Pawlenty was vetoed because it was too large and included too many tax increases.


After the 35W Bridge collapse, many Minnesotans across the state also came to believe that our bridge and road infrastructure and safety need to be upgraded. It turns out there has been plenty of contention and controversy regarding how to fund transportation costs in Minnesota.


Some in the legislature believe Pawlenty is responsible for the state of Mn/DOT and the state’s infrastructure. State Senator and Chairman of the Bonding Committee, Keith Langseth said, "I've been in it for six governors. On infrastructure this one is the worst, without any question…He thinks he can just keep pushing this stuff off, whether it's by bonding rather than paying cash, or just not doing it. He thinks he can get that beyond his tenure in office and just dump it on to somebody else, and it caught up with him." [4]


During Pawlenty’s 2005 veto of the gas tax, he said DFLers were obsessed with a gas tax and asked, “How dumb can they be?” [2] In May 2007 after the veto of a 7 ½ cent/gallon tax increase, Pawlenty called the increase an “unnecessary and onerous burden.” [2] House Minority Leader Marty Seifert called the increase a joke and a “pocket-picking mechanism.” [2]


After the May 2007 veto, Rep. Ron Erhardt, a Republican and one of the sponsors of the bill said, "We were quite happy…because we got a bipartisan plan passed. The leadership in this party has dropped the ball on funding transportation issues, just because somebody, a big somebody, signed a no-new-taxes pledge." [5]


After the collapse, Seifert said he was “open-minded” about a tax increase for road and bridge improvements. [2]


Steve Murphy, Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said “I think people are clamoring for us to do something about this. Our system is underfunded. I hate to tap taxpayers, but we haven’t had real money in the system since 1988. If someone gets in the way, they should be prepared to get steamrolled.” [2]


Murphy also said, "Is it a tax increase? Yes, but I'm asking people, is $126 too much to ask to have safe roads, safe bridges and a transit system that actually moves people across the metropolitan region? I don't think so." [6]


But not everyone agreed there should be a tax increase. Commissioner Carol Molnau said “we do need to look for resources we can count on long term…we would have to raise gas taxes 34 or 35 cents a gallon to do what you’re asking us to do. I don’t think the motoring public nor the commerce in this state could sustain that.” [2]


Two days before the latest transportation funding bill was to be voted on, a state highways and bridges evaluation report by the non-partisan Office of the Legislative Auditor was released. The report focused on larger transportation funding issues, not the bridge collapse. Legislative Auditor James Nobles said, “The picture going forward is clear, and it is not pretty.” [7]


The summary page of the report [8] states:



DFL leaders then, according to a report in the Star Tribune, “immediately pounced on the report as evidence that the bill is needed.” [7]


On 21 February 2008, the transportation funding bill, HR2800, was passed by the Minnesota House and Senate, but on 22 February 2008, Governor Pawlenty vetoed the bill and called it an “overreaching, massive tax increase.” [9]


On 25 February 2008, the Senate (47 to 20 in favor) and House (91 to 41 in favor) voted to override the veto.


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Two Republicans in the Senate and six Republicans in the House voted with the Democrats. These six, besides being put on a “wanted” poster on the Taxpayers League of Minnesota website, [10] have also been removed from their leadership roles in the House. 


After hearing of the override, Pawlenty called the legislation “ridiculous in scope and magnitude…I am more than happy to say this is a DFL product and a DFL result…It’s a whole basket, a whole bucket of tax increases.” [11] He also said the Democrats should “buckle their seat belts because there may be some unexpected turbulence.” [12]


According to Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "Gov. Pawlenty has vetoed some transportation bills, talked about restraining government. And if it turns out that that restraint, so that we could keep from having more taxes, came at the expense of infrastructure repair, he's going to have some explaining to do." [3]







1. Minnesota Public Radio, Molnau gets defensive; Pawlenty may give in on gas tax increase. Retrieved 12 April 2008.

2., Gas tax increase appears certain. Retrieved 8 April 2008.

3. Minnesota Public Radio, Pawlenty's political future may be at stake after bridge calamity. Retrieved 13 April 2008. 

4. Minnesota Public Radio, Bridge collapse renews focus on transportation funding debate. Retrieved 5 April 2008.

5., Who's to Blame? Retrieved 5 April 2008.

6. Minnesota Public Radio, Transportation bill headed to governor’s desk. Retrieved 5 April 2008.

7., Report 'not pretty'; highways in decline. Retrieved 5 April 2008.

8. Office of the Legislative Auditor, Evaluation Report – State Highways and Bridges. Retrieved 13 April 2008. 

9. Minnesota Public Radio, Pawlenty vetos transportation bill. Retrieved 5 April 2008.

10. Taxpayers League of Minnesota, Retrieved 13 April 2008.

11., House, Senate override a Pawlenty veto for the first time. Retrieved 5 April 2008.

12., Governor lashes back; says override will spark ‘tax revolt’. Retrieved 5 April 2008.