The House bill would set aside $135 million a year, or 3/16ths of 1 percent of current state sales tax revenue beginning in 2009. If approved, the money would go toward improving hunting and fishing habitats, water cleanup, parks and trails, and arts programs.
Republican Rep. Tom Hackbarth of Cedar, the bill's sponsor, says environmental projects have suffered too long from from state budget cuts.
"As I was growing up, we'd vacation and we'd go camping, lakes and fish. And I think that we're losing that tourism aspect of our clean lakes, our clean forests. And I think we have to get back to that and build Minnesota as a tourism state. We have to get back to that. That's simply where I'm at," he said.
Hackbarth's bill originally dedicated 1/8 of 1 percent of the existing sales tax to hunting and fishing resources. The bill was nearly amended to death this session in the committee process, but a simplified version returned for the House vote.
I don't see an amendment here in the constitution putting money into education. There's nothing for health care, nothing for jobs, nothing for roads and transit, nothing for seniors and nursing homes. What kind of priority is this body setting?Rep. Joe Mullery
It quickly grew again through a series of floor amendments. The amount of dedicated sales tax was increased to 3/16 of 1 percent. Clean water initiatives were added. And Republican Rep. Mike Charron of Woodbury convinced his colleagues to include arts programs and public broadcasting.
"Without the arts, the Twin Cities is a cold Des Moines. No disrespect intended. Without the arts Minnesota is a North Dakota without the missile silos," he said.
The Charron amendment provides support for public broadcasting entities in Minnesota, but specifically excludes Minnesota Public Radio. The exact wording, "No noncommercial radio station . . .who holds more than 10 licenses to operate a noncommercial radio station issued by the Federal Communications Commission is eligible for funding under this section," would only apply to Minnesota Public Radio.
The DFL-controlled Senate passed a bill earlier this month that generates $270 million a year, twice what the House bill dedicates. The Senate version also would provide funding for public broadcasting, including Minnesota Public Radio.
But that Senate plan also asks voters to increase the sales tax by 3/8 of 1 percent. In the House, DFLers tried to add a similar tax increase, but fell one vote short. DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia warned that dedicating existing taxes will force cuts in other budget areas.
"We all know that we're going to have to cut something to pay for this," he said. "And I don't think even our sporting community, our anglers and our hunters, want us to hurt senior citizens and vulnerable adults and all the other people who we've put fees on and co-pays on in order to pay for things."
Opponents on both sides of the aisle argued that permanently dedicating a portion of state revenue is poor tax policy and could tie the hands of future legislators during tough financial times.
DFL Rep. Joe Mullery of Minneapolis said the constitutional amendment would set a bad spending precedent.
"I don't see an amendment here in the constitution putting money into education. There's nothing for health care, nothing for jobs, nothing for roads and transit, nothing for seniors and nursing homes. What kind of priority is this body setting?" he said.
Hunting and fishing groups have been working on the constitutional amendment proposal for eight years. John Schroers, president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, was pleased with the House vote. Schroers is hoping the differences between the House and Senate bills can be resolved.
"I'm confident that both bodies want to see this thing done. It's an election year after all. If there's going to be stadiums, I think our issue has got to be ranked just as high," Schroers said.
Gov. Pawlenty issued a statement saying the House vote represents important and needed progress for the outdoors and clean water. Pawlenty, who opposes a tax increase, said the House and Senate must reconcile their differences so Minnesotans have a chance to vote.