It's a circus in thereby Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
It's not often that a citizen tells legislators they're acting like clowns -- at least not to their faces. But that's what happened this week at the Capitol. A bill that would ask voters to dedicate a portion of the sales tax to environmental projects has become so loaded down with other proposals in the House that even the bill's sponsor says he doesn't recognize it. One citizen who supports the original bill got so angry he called the process a circus.
St. Paul, Minn. — It may be a case of loving a bill to death. What started out as a proposal to dedicate one-eighth of 1 percent of the sales tax to the environment now raises the sales tax by three-eighths of a percent.
The bill moving through the House now includes funding for the arts and public broadcasting; it lowers the amount of transit funding in another ballot measure; and it includes yet another constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.
This was all too much for Tom Jes of Plymouth, who called the actions of the House Tax Committee a joke.
"I'm almost ready to say we need the clown suits out back, so that somebody can get in there and dance around!" he said.
Jes has been wearing his blaze orange hunting cap to the Capitol, as he's testified in support of the measure before House and Senate committees. He says he's an average citizen who wants to make sure the Legislature spends more money on the environment.
"We've come with an amendment to the Constitution to fix 150 years of neglect ... When do we really get down to business and cut out the comedy?" Jes said.
Jes wasn't the only one disgusted by what happened in the House tax committee. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, says legislators are playing games with his bill.
"They don't want it to happen. They're trying to do it in a way that they don't have to upset the hunters and fisherman out there, so we need our little piece of pie and we're going to try to kill this thing by piling on. And I think that's all this is really coming to right now. It's a political game. Started out to be a very, very nice nonpartisan issue that everybody could have supported."
Hackbarth says he won't support a sales tax increase. He says the bill better get pared back to its original form before it reaches the House floor, or it won't have his name on it.
There hasn't been nearly as much drama over this issue in the Senate, where a version of the bill has easily cleared three committees. That may be because the Senate bill started out with funding for a host of programs -- fish and wildlife habitat, water cleanup, parks, trails, zoos, arts, humanities and public broadcasting.
Like the current House bill, the Senate legislation would ask voters to increase the state's 6.5 percent sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent. But unlike the House version, the Senate bill does not include amendments dealing with either transportation or gay marriage.
Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, is critical of the bill, saying the Legislature should fund programs through the regular legislative process.
"We know that dedicated funds decrease accountability, they decrease our oversight of state funds," Gerlach says. "It's all sort of on autopilot, and the more and more we put our budget on autopilot, we're hearing now that there will be problems with this. We know there will be."
Some lawmakers say if the bill gets too big, voters will reject it. Other lawmakers say by including the arts and public broadcasting, they've broadened the support for the bill, which should help its chances if it's on the November ballot. The sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples, says he feels strongly that the measure should raise the sales tax. Otherwise, he says it won't provide any new money, and will take away from other areas the state funds.
"If it's within the 6.5 percent, we don't have the money. We're not going to take the money from education, we're not going to take it from health care, disabled people, local units of government," says Sams.
Sams is confident that the bill that ultimately emerges from the session will include a sales tax increase. House GOP leaders disagree, and will try to put the bill on a diet as it moves through the House.
- All Things Considered, 03/22/2006, 5:23 p.m.