Senate approves dedicated state money for outdoors, artsby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Senate has approved legislation that lets voters decide whether to raise sales taxes to benefit environmental programs and the arts. Lawmakers passed the proposed constitutional amendment on Monday on a 42-to-22 vote. The DFL-backed bill is at odd with Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans, who don't want a tax increase or any arts programs included in the bill.
St. Paul, Minn. — The Senate bill would let voters decide this fall whether to raise the state sales tax by .375 percent. That would bring the tax up to 6.875 percent. The dedicated funding would go to hunting and fishing resources, parks and trails, clean water programs and the arts.
DFL Sen. Dallas Sams of Staples, the bill's chief sponsor, says there are core values for Minnesota. But he says too often they're also the areas where funding is cut in tough budget times.
"Providing a long-term dedicated funding source for these areas really guarantee that our outdoor heritage and our commitment to parks, waters and cultural affairs will not be eroded over time," Sams said.
Under the Senate bill the state would generate nearly $277 million a year in new sales taxes for 25 years. About a third of the revenue -- $94 million -- would go to a special fund to improve and protect fish, wildlife, habitat and tourism. Parks, trails and zoos would receive nearly $61 million. Similar shares would go toward cleaning up polluted waters and boosting several arts and cultural interests, including the State Arts Board, Minnesota Historical Society and public broadcasting.
Sen. Sams says a tax increase is the only way to make it happen.
"The environment situation alone in Minnesota over the past three years has gone from 2 percent of the state's budget to 1 percent of the state's budget. There is no money. Let's be real about this. If you really want to make this state something, a legacy for our kids, our children and grandchildren, you've got to put some revenue in there," he said.
Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to block the tax increase by changing the dedicated funding to a percentage of existing sales tax revenue. That's the approach favored by Gov. Pawlenty and the House Republicans. There were also concerns raised about legislators pushing off difficult funding decisions to the voters.
Republican Sen. Tom Neuville of Northfield supported unsuccessful attempts to eliminate arts funding from the bill. He's worried the amendment won't pass in November if the arts remain part of the question.
"Most of us support the arts in our communities, the arts theaters, the musical programs. Most of us attend it. But it doesn't rise to a constitutional level. So, my message to sportsmen who've been working for years. I think you've been betrayed," Neuville said.
Many outdoor enthusiasts were on hand for the Senate debate. John Schroers, president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, wasn't talking about betrayal. He described the vote as truly historic.
"The goal is to get it to conference committee. All of the add-ons obviously were not there when we started this effort eight years ago. And we're only here to defend the original intent. It's up to the wisdom of the Legislature to decide all the other issues," he said.
The House version of the bill has also veered from its original intent. That measure began as a .375 percent dedication of existing sales tax revenue for conservation programs. But it was nearly amended to death in a recent committee hearing. Lawmakers tacked on a tax increase, arts funding and even a ban on same-sex marriage. They also used the bill to alter a ballot question on transportation funding.
Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says the bill is a mess, but it can be fixed. "My hope is at this point that bill will move forward to the Ways and Means and Rules committees," he said. "We will clean it up in the Ways and Means or the Rules Committee so it gets to the House floor. It will be a straight up-or-down vote on conservation, environment, habitat programs with the one-eighth dedication as originally introduced."
Sviggum says the House will likely vote on the bill after the Legislature's break for the Easter and Passover holidays.