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Why one DFLer flipped on the gas tax

There’s been plenty of hubbub about the so-called “gang of six” House Republicans who voted Monday to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s transportation bill veto. Pawlenty frothed for the cameras, House Minority Leader Marty Seifert stripped the six of their committee leadership positions (well, Seifert said he accepted resignations), and local right-wing bloggers vowed to keep the issue alive when the state reps run for re-election in November.

But there was a quieter, less controversial vote on Monday that went for the override by a lawmaker who on Thursday voted against the transportation bill — John Lesch, a DFLer from St. Paul. Lesch and fellow DFLer Mary Ellen Otremba of Long Prairie may not have been as instrumental in overriding the guv as those who shall now forever be slurred as “RINOs” — Republicans in name only — but reversing their support from Thursday to Monday certainly was crucial.

What changed?

For Lesch, he simply needed the time to figure out the implications of and talk to his fellow Democrats about a particular amendment in the bill that troubled him. In floor parlance, the amendment became known during the two sessions as the “Madore Amendment,” after chief author Shelley Madore, DFL-Apple Valley.

Madore’s move involved a section of the bill regarding “Motor vehicle lease sales tax revenue,” a good hunk of change that would be split off into several metro and rural transit and highway accounts.

The Madore Amendment, which passed Thursday, streamlined 50 percent of sales tax revenue off leased cars into one county-state highway fund set up for counties in the metro area. The counties would divvy up the goods based on population. One problem, as Lesch saw it, was a phrase that kept popping up in the amendment: “excluding the counties of Hennepin and Ramsey.”

‘Taking money from Minneapolis and St. Paul’

“I thought, if this goes through, look at what it does to Minneapolis and St. Paul,” Lesch recalled Tuesday, adding that it was “nearly impossible” to understand the full implications from the floor. “I knew on Thursday it was taking money from Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

To hear Lesch tell it, the amendment was introduced to “augment the loss” from the reduction of a metro sales tax in the original bill from half a cent to a quarter of a cent. The revenues would go to the seven counties based on a “population formula,” but in counting Hennepin and Ramey’s populations, the formula excludes Minneapolis and St. Paul. (The amendment was tweaked at one point to reflect this fuzzy math.)

“The fear is that Hennepin and Ramsey soak up the money,” Lesch said, adding that without Minneapolis, Hennepin has about 800,000 residents, and without St. Paul, Ramsey has about 250,000, by his math. “It hits Hennepin and Ramsey substantially, about $7 to $10 million.”

So Lesch registered and voiced his disapproval Thursday. “It didn’t pass the smell test,” he said. “I wanted my red vote noted on Thursday.” He knew full well that the entire transportation bill would be vetoed by Pawlenty and sent back to the House Monday.

The amendment “is still in the bill as passed, same language as Thursday,” Lesch sighed. “Promises have been made to rectify” the disparity in the next transportation bill, which is at least a year away, if not much farther down the line.

Still, Lesch feels he did his job by raising the point with his caucus and not voting blindly. “It took me 36 hours,” he concluded Tuesday, “to try to wrap my head around what the hell this was going to do.”

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