Environmental and arts spending tangled up againby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
Environmental groups say the legislative session is off to a good start with the passage of a renewable energy standard and the Great Lakes Compact. But they say those victories won't soften their resolve to get permanent funding to clean up rivers and lakes, and restore habitat. To make that point, hundreds of Minnesotans from more than a half dozen out-state cities traveled to the Capitol Wednesday to urge lawmakers to do more for the environment.
St. Paul, Minn. — One of the main proposals the group supports is a constitutional amendment that would dedicate a portion of the state sales tax to pay for water and habitat conservation. Rally organizers presented a unified front to lawmakers. But there are divisions over the proposal among the groups.
The arts funding language has been a thorn in the side of some conservation groups for two years now. The Senate's latest version of the "Great Outdoors" bill would add three-eighths of 1 percent to the state's 6.5 percent sales tax.
The bill would send 22 percent of the sales tax increase to arts, humanities, museums and public broadcasting, including Minnesota Public Radio. Several versions of the bill are also circulating in the House -- some with arts funding, some without it.
Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of more than 80 conservation and environmental organizations, said he is aware of the differences of opinion over the arts funding. But he doesn't want to dwell on it.
"For us, we're focusing on clean lakes, rivers and streams and protecting the natural habitat of this state. Arts or no arts, isn't really our issue. That's up to the Legislature to decide. We're going to push water, land protection," Morse said.
But some conservation advocates disagree with that tactic, including newspaper columnist Dennis Anderson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He thinks conservation and environmental groups are being too cautious.
"They're worried...if they come out too hard now against the arts inclusion, that the public will actually buy into that," said Anderson, and voters would defeat the bill. "This is going to be a one-shot opportunity, I think everybody agrees, if it gets to a statewide vote."
Anderson doesn't think the strategy will work. He doubts voters will feel compelled to vote in favor of an outdoors spending bill that doesn't make sense to them.
Garry Leaf, with Sportsmen For Change, agrees. Leaf says the arts provisions have to go.
"We believe the bill should be a clean bill, one that should be for game, fish and waters. And anything beyond that we believe won't help us out on the ballot with the average citizen of Minnesota," he said.
Leaf says at a recent game fair his group talked to approximately 100 sportsmen, and only one supported including the arts in the dedicated funding bill.
So how vocal are sportsmen like Leaf and Anderson going to be? It depends.
Anderson says he's not entirely opposed to sharing some of the amendment proceeds with the arts. But he says the percentage should be small. For example, he doesn't like what he sees in the current Senate bill which gives the arts roughly as much money as clean water programs.
Anderson says if arts groups receive that much money, he'll follow through with a threat he issued in his newspaper column a few weeks ago --he promised to ride a bike from Warroad to Worthington to tell every Minnesota voter to vote against the amendment.
"If they (legislators) have a choice in the end and that choice is to take a little more than others think they should, then I think that I, among a majority of Minnesotans, will simply say, 'You had your chance and we had our chance, but it didn't work. You tried to take too much. And we'll go for a bike ride.'"
Minnesota lawmakers don't have to act on the dedicated funding proposal this year, since the measure wouldn't go to voters until 2008. But many believe they will vote on the measure to give proponents enough time to explain it to voters.
- All Things Considered, 02/21/2007, 5:24 p.m.