Time working against natural resources bill at Capitol

Members of House-Senate conference committee on dedicated funding have been meeting and talking but have little to show for their efforts. Both sides still want voters decide this fall whether to dedicate state money to fish and wildlife habitat, water cleanup, parks and trails, and the arts. But they're still far from an agreement of how to do it.

With the Legislative session entering its final days, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, is frustrated with the pace of the negotiations.

"My assessment of where it's at is complete meltdown," says Cornish, who is upset that the DFL Senate hasn't budged from its original position.

The Senate version of the constitutional amendment bill would generate $270 million a year by increasing the sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent. The House bill would dedicate a three-sixteenths of 1 percent of current state sales tax revenue, or about $135 million a year.

House negotiators recently proposed to split the issue into two ballot questions. One would dedicate existing taxes to fish and game. The other would provide a tax increase for clean water, parks and trails and the arts.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, says it's a good compromise. "Put all the things the Senate wanted in one question. They want a tax increase, put it all into one question. And just leave the hunting and fishing one alone. We don't want a tax increase, take it from existing funds. Let that go to the voters and let the Senate's portion go to the voters. We'll vote on them both. Maybe they'll both pass, maybe neither will pass, maybe one or the other," Hackbarth said.

Hackbarth says he won't schedule another conference committee meeting until the Senate is willing to deal.

Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples, hasn't thrown in the towel. He says he thinks a compromise can be reached before this weekend's deadline for action, even if it's part of a larger agreement that concludes the session. But Sams says he doesn't like the House proposal for two ballot questions.

"I think a lot of people think it should be just one question on the ballot and it would confuse voters," said Sams.

Sams is also standing firm on a tax increase. He says dedicating existing tax revenue would mean less money is available for education and other spending priorities. Still, he sees a deal within reach.

"It's certainly something that we can put together. I think I'm really very positive about it. So it's just going to take maybe a day or two to put together. And like I said, it might be part of a final agreement of the whole session," he said.

Sportsmen groups remain neutral on the tax debate, they just want funding dedicated to preserve wildlife habitat. They've been working eight years on this issue.

John Schroers, president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, is holding out hope that lawmakers will find some middle ground. If not, he says the push for a constitutional amendment could be over. "We've got a lot of mileage out of volunteers. None of our people are paid suits, no paid representation. And we've been able to garner support from rank-and-file citizens, but if they see that there's no progress or no solution this year, it probably will not occur next year. This is a very vital time. If we don't do it this year, we probably never will," according to Schroers. Another difference between the two bills concerns public broadcasting. Minnesota Public Radio and other public broadcasters would share $12 million a year under the Senate bill. The House bill earmarks $5 million dollars, but eliminates MPR from the equation by prohibiting broadcasters that hold 10 or more licenses.

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