Campaign for constitutional amendment gears upby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
When Minnesotans head to the polls in November, they'll be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment that would raise the state sales tax by three-eighths of one percent. If approved, the measure would raise millions of dollars for environmental protection and the arts.
Supporters include an unlikely pairing of hunting and fishing groups with organizations that support arts and culture. Opponents say the state can't afford another tax hike.
Bemidji, Minn. — Thousands of people walk through the Bemidji Community Arts Center each year. The art gallery is popular with locals, and it brings lots of tourist dollars into town.
The organization relies heavily on donations and state-funded grants to stay afloat. Center director Lori Forshee-Donnay says funding the facility can be a nail-biter each year. She says passing the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment will help.
"There's more and more organizations and artists looking for a shrinking pool of money, and whenever there's a deficit, these are the areas that get cut first," said Forshee-Donnay. "So it will be really nice to be able to have a stable, long term source of funding."
If approved, the constitutional amendment could raise nearly $300 million a year. Eighty percent would go toward things like clean water initiatives, wildlife habitat restoration and land conservation efforts. The rest would help fund groups like the Region 2 Arts Council in northwest Minnesota.
Region 2 director Teri Widman says in 2003, state funding for the arts council was cut 32 percent.
She says that hurt their ability to provide music and arts programming grants to school districts. Widman says the council's mission is even more critical now that many schools are slashing their arts budgets.
Widman says raising the sales tax is a good way to meet needs that most Minnesotans agree are important.
"It's only three-eighths of one percent, which means that the average family of four would pay less than $5 a month to invest in their clean water, conserving the wildlife habitats, the outdoors, and providing arts funding," said Widman. "We're talking about future generations. It's a very small amount of money to invest in the future."
The proposed amendment that voters will see in November has been years in the making, and arts weren't part of the mix until now. The initiative was started mostly by groups supporting hunting and fishing.
Scott Anderson, northwest regional director for Ducks Unlimited, says broadening the coalition to include the arts was a smart political move.
"We've been fighting this battle to get it out for a vote for many years," said Anderson. "The organizations fighting for it just had to realize that there's give and take with it. If we absolutely say the arts and culture shouldn't be a part of it, we might not even be this far yet."
Getting the amendment question on the ballot is one thing. Rallying voter support may be a bigger challenge.
A Minnesota Public Radio News/Humphrey Institute poll last month, showed 72 percent of respondents were against raising the sales tax.
Terry Stone lives in International Falls, where he runs a retail electronics business. Stone says Minnesota already has one of the highest sales tax rates in the country.
He worries a hike would hurt his business, and says now is an especially bad time to do it.
"It couldn't be worse," Stone said. "We have a soggy economy and we have extreme budgetary issues. Legislators are saying about a billion dollar deficit just for starters in the next session. To start throwing dedicated, locked in, 25-year-long funding for anything strikes me as bad government."
Some studies show voters tend to approve tax increase questions at about a 50-50 rate, but those that promote things like clean water and conservation tend to do better, says Pat Donnay, a political science professor at Bemidji State University. He's married to the director of the Bemidji Community Arts Center.
Donnay says passage of the amendment may be more difficult because if voters leave the question blank, the ballot is counted as a no vote.
He says it's likely many voters aren't familiar with the issue yet. They'll be big targets of the special interest groups either for or against the measure. He says that's one of the downsides of posing referendum questions to voters.
"People like to think it's direct democracy, but it really plays to the interest groups in much the same way, if not more so, than representative democracy," said Donnay. "It's all about who's got the money to get the airwaves and the billboards. That's what it will become between now and election day, is a battle between the various interests to get their message out."
Supporters of the amendment include a coalition of about 200 organizations. They're funding a multi-million dollar advertising campaign promoting the measure.
Groups like the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce have mounted their own campaigns to defeat the amendment.
- Morning Edition, 09/22/2008, 7:20 a.m.