Gas prices becoming big theme in 2022 Minnesota governor race

Rising fuel costs are emerging as a leading issue in the 2022 race for Minnesota governor, as Republican Scott Jensen becomes the latest candidate to propose measures to bring down prices at the pump.

The GOP-endorsed Jensen issued a package of plans last month that his campaign said would reduce gas prices by up to 51 cents per gallon, while seeking to draw a stark contrast to DFL Gov. Tim Walz’s approach thus far to Minnesota motorists’ economic woes. Jensen’s plan includes calling for a repeal of a state law that sets a floor on gas prices, and plans for suspending gas taxes in the state.

“My belief is that this is a huge issue,” Jensen said in an interview. “This affects people in the workplace and in their family life after 27 months of COVID. People are facing one more crisis and are now saying things like, ‘I have to cancel the family trip to South Dakota.'”

Walz began his first term by trying to raise the gas tax by 20 cents, but has since signaled support for suspending the tax earlier this year. He also previously urged Congress to pass legislation to press pause on the federal gas tax. But his campaign remains focused on lobbying the Legislature to pass tax relief legislation and other priorities to help ease inflation’s toll on Minnesotans. Multiple major spending bills would now require a special session to pass this year after lawmakers sailed past the end-of-session deadline last month.

In a statement, Walz campaign manager Nichole Johnson pointed to the stalled legislation and Jensen’s opposition to it in response to the GOP candidate’s gas price plan.

“If Scott Jensen cared more about helping working families than he did about politics, he wouldn’t be asking Senate Republicans to kill that deal,” Johnson said. “The Governor has also called for a federal gas tax holiday and is open to a state holiday as well.”

Gas prices — and inflation more broadly — are on track to be a dominant campaign theme this year. Jensen unveiled his plan shortly before outlining priorities on another major issue: public safety. Such issues are supplanting the progressive agenda on which Walz ran in 2018, said University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs.

“That’s a theme for a different era,” Jacobs said. “Right now, to win the election and particularly the elections that are up for grabs in the Legislature you have to respond to this deep, deep anxiety.”

Jensen’s plan includes a pitch to repeal a 2001 state law that bars retailers from selling gas at a price below the state average. It was intended to protect smaller businesses from larger competitors. Jensen’s campaign predicts that repealing the law would drop gas prices by 20 to 25 cents.

Minnesota’s so-called minimum markup law was first repealed in 1984 before being reinstated in 2001. But researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater found that consumers actually paid an additional 2 cents per gallon after the law was repealed.

Jensen also wants to suspend the state gas tax of 28.6 cents a gallon, which he said would save consumers $70 million per month. Jensen’s plan would use the surplus to pay for roads and construction. That is similar to a failed proposal from Minnesota House Democrats this year to suspend the gas tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The House DFL proposal also included plans to use the state’s budget surplus to cover lost revenue.

But the measure did not gain bipartisan support and never got a hearing. Five states – Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and New York – have pressed pause on state gas taxes to try to give consumers relief.

Rep. Dan Volgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, is one of the sponsors of the House bill to suspend the state gas tax. He said he wants lawmakers to return for a special session to pass the bill, and that it could be amended to extend the gas tax holiday through the end of the year.

“I think this is at the forefront of Minnesotans’ minds. I’m hearing about it from my constituents. I know my colleagues are hearing from their constituents and the governor is hearing about it across the state,” said Wolgamott. “We are in a crisis point right now and until the crisis subsides, Minnesotans need a legislative response to rising gas prices.”

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, countered last week that the DFL bill was a “failed publicity stunt” to “cover up their history of voting for massive gas tax increases.”

Jensen is also proposing “reviewing and expediting” permits for pipelines and refineries and using the state’s financial aid system to help people obtain commercial driver’s licenses. He would meanwhile order the Commerce Department to report on steps that can be taken via executive action or legislation to reduce fuel costs.

National gas prices hit $5 a gallon on Saturday, according to AAA. That’s up from $3 a year ago and $4.31 last month. Minnesota’s average is sitting at $4.74, up from $2.84 last year and $4.37 last month.

“It’s quite possible that gas prices will continue to go up,” said Jacobs, the University of Minnesota professor. “There’s a dynamic here where Jensen is laying down a line of attack and Walz is going to be unable to respond to it in an effective way.”

Marty Seifert, a former Minnesota House Minority Leader who is advising Jensen on policy issues, described inflation and crime as evidence that Minnesotans are “no better off” than they were four years ago.

“Food, groceries and supplies are generally transported in the state of Minnesota by fueled vehicles,” Seifert said. “That all drives the price of things you purchase at the grocery store and hardware store. The rich can be insulated from this but for the poor and working class, this is what they are facing every single day.”

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