Outdoors, arts amendment heads to ballot

Eagle in flight
Wildlife habitat and clean water, along with arts and parks would get some of the money from a higher sales tax if voters approve it.
MPR Photo/Chet Meyers

The House and Senate voted overwhelming Thursday to pass a consitutional amendment bill that failed to get through last year's session. If approved by voters in November, the measure would dedicate millions of dollars to enhance specific state resources, including wildlife habitat and arts and cultural programs.

The Nov. 4 statewide ballot will ask voters if they want to amend the Minnesota constitution to include a dedicated funding provision to protect hunting and fishing habitats, water sources, parks and trails, and the state's arts and cultural heritage. The sales tax increase of three eighths of one percent would generate nearly $300 million a year for 25 years.

DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm said the measure would ensure Minnesota's quality of life.

"That is what we're asking the voters to vote on in November is making sure we have a long term, 25 year plan to make sure we have the resources in place for not just our quality of life but the life of our kids and grandkids," he said.

The fractional increase in the sales tax would add four cents to a $10 purchase. Supporters provided one estimate that a Minnesota family with income at roughly $56,000 would pay an additional $56 a year in sales tax.

"For most people in Minnesota who treasure our outdoors, they're going to say it's worth it."

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, said dedicated funding isn't the best way to preserve state resources, but it's necessary.

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"Four cents on a $10 paperback, a $10 lunch," she said. "If you want to go fishing, $10 a six pack of beer or some fishing lures or minnows. We're talking about four cents. Now to some people that's a lot of money, but to most people in Minnesota who treasure our outdoors, I think they're going to say that that's worth it."

The DFL-controlled House passed the measure 85-46. The vote was 46-17 in the Senate. But the measure had supporters and opponents on both sides of the political aisle.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the sales tax increase is unfair to low income Minnesotans.

"Are we so hungry for new revenue, so hungry for new spending that we're actually willing to compromise our core beliefs on fair taxation?" he asked. "We'll compromise that if we think it creates a little better opportunity to get more new money."

Last bit of lobbying
Supporters of a bill calling for a constitutional amendment to dedicated sales tax money for natural resources "wore" a canoe to show their support outside the Capitol at a rally last spring.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Constitutional amendments do not require the governor's approval to land on the general election ballot.

Republican House Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall suggested Democrats could use the same approach to avoid a veto of their proposed transportation bill, which would raise the gas tax and other fees. Seifert said dedicated funding is bad policy, but he wants more consistency from the DFL.

"If this is such a great idea to dedicate an increase in taxes for what are wonderful causes that are out there, and avoid the governor and avoid the minority, why is it such a bad idea to put all the transportation tax increases on the ballot for the people to decide?" he asked.

The bill's final passage ends a legislative debate that began more than a decade ago. Former Sen. Bob Lessard, DFL-International Falls, started the push for hunting and fishing funds in the late 1990s and continued to lobby after leaving office. Lesard was at the Capitol again to watch the House and Senate votes.

"It's kind of hard to sit there and actually believe you're going to see something that you've worked on so long, and for all of us that have brought this to the table" he said. "I think it's a historic moment in the state to get it this far. And I believe we can pass it this fall."

Groups representing hunters, anglers, environmentalists, as well as various arts advocates, are planning a statewide campaign to win voter support for the constitutional amendment. Officials say they'll be ready to launch the campaign in about a month.