Some fear state might seek money meant for environment

Minnehaha Falls
Advocates of the sales tax increase meant to boost investments in Minnesota's natural resources fear that the goverment will be looking to that money for other purposes. On Thursday it was announced that the state will face a projected $5.2 billion budget deficit.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The 3/8 of a percent sales tax was expected to raise nearly $300 million a year. That number could go down, with the poor economy and low consumer spending.

It sounds like a lot of money, $300 million, until you compare it to the projected budget shortfall of more than $5 billion over the next two years.

Still, legislators and the governor will be looking for money under every rock, and they could be eyeing the new sales tax money that will start coming into the state coffers in July.

"They do so at their peril," said Ellen Anderson, who chairs the finance division of the Senate Energy, Environment and Natural Resources committee.

Anderson said the law that put the constitutional amendment on the ballot is clear: the money should supplement, not replace existing funding for resources.

"I think people would storm the Capitol if we use that money to balance the budget instead of using it for clean water and land and our legacy like it's intended to be used for," Anderson said.

Anderson said researchers are trying to figure out how much the state has traditionally spent on resources. They'll use that as a benchmark, to make sure the new money supplements rather than replacing state spending.

Meanwhile, Anderson said the huge budget deficit probably means some cuts for the DNR and the Pollution Control Agency.

"What I'm afraid of is, for example, in the Governor's budget, he might try to rename some programs and call them clean water programs, so we're not going to say that the same old thing with a new name isn't going to qualify as clean water spending," Anderson said. "We're going to have to be really careful that we don't permit that."

But at a news conference Thursday, Governor Pawlenty said he would respect the aim of the constitutional amendment, which is for long-term investments.

"What do we need to do over the next 20 or 30 years for clean water? What do we need to do over the next 20 or 30 years on trails and parks, and down the road?" Pawlenty said. "This is more of a strategic opportunity, a long-term opportunity, and that's how that money should get used, rather than day-to-day operations."

On the other side of the Capitol, Representative Jean Wagenius chairs the Environment and Natural Resources funding committee. She said she expects proportional cuts for resource agencies. But, she said the money usually allocated in the general fund for the environment is so small -- slightly more than 1 percent -- that the idea of replacing it with new sales tax money is ludicrous.

"There is no way to substitute," Wagenius said. "With regard to money to go to clean up our lakes rivers and streams, we currently don't have money to do that, so there's not much question of substitution. The agencies aren't really doing much of that, if any."

The groups that worked to get the constitutional amendment passed say they'll be watching the legislature to make sure cuts are fair.

Steve Morse is executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of 80 groups that worked hard for the amendment.

"We're going to be watching that very, very closely, and guarding that very ferociously, because the citizens have overwhelmingly spoken," Morse said.

He said the fact that more Minnesotans voted for the amendment than voted for any candidate shows people are frustrated that the legislature and the governor haven't been able to agree on how to meet the state's needs. And he said therein lies the broader message of that vote

"We're not a 'no new tax' state, Minnesotans just raised their tax," Morse said. "So the elected officials need to sync up with the actual public."

But the tax Minnesotans passed for themselves is dedicated to a specific purpose. Governor Pawlenty has repeated his long-standing opposition to increased taxes, to balance the budget or for anything else.

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