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Committee sinks outdoors amendment

ST. PAUL - A plan dedicating funding to outdoors and arts programs came to a screeching halt in a Minnesota Senate committee Tuesday while it got a start in the House.

The mixed message left in question the future of the bill amending the state Constitution to raise the state sales tax 0.375 percent for outdoors, clean-water and arts programs.

Supporters thought they had enough votes for the measure to pass the Senate Taxes Committee Tuesday, but it failed 8-5, with four Democrats joining the panel's four Republicans in opposing it.

In the House Game, Fish and Forestry Division later in the day, a parade of witnesses testified in support of outdoors-related funding in the bill. The panel, the first to hear the bill in the House, is expected to vote on the measure today, but it still would face eight more committee stops before reaching the full House.

Chances of the bill passing "are pretty slim right now," Senate Taxes Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.

Added Tom Landweher of the Nature Conservancy: "It feels an awful lot like discussing placement of deck chairs on the Titanic."

Supporters said it is important to pass the bill this year so they can raise the estimated $4 million it will cost for a campaign before a November 2008 public vote on the proposal.

While supporters said they were disappointed with the Senate committee vote, they promised to keep fighting.

"For nearly a decade, conservationists, sportsmen, environmentalists and citizens have worked tirelessly to protect Minnesota's natural resources," said John Curry of Great Outdoors Minnesota. "This is a significant setback, but we will continue to work with Senate leadership to find a way to revive this important piece of legislation."

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, the Senate bill's main sponsor, said he will talk to Taxes Committee members in an attempt to change votes. The Minneapolis Democrat said he has no plans to change the bill.

Bakk said the bill is not scheduled to come back up in the committee, and he plans no further meetings this year after Friday.

The bill would ask voters to amend the state Constitution next year.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said he would be more likely to support the measure in 2008, after he sees how issues such as funding education and nursing homes fare in the final month of this legislative session.

If the Legislature passes the measure and voters approve it next year, the nearly $300 million a year the Senate bill would produce would be divided three ways - 33 percent to a variety of outdoors programs such as hunting and fishing; 43 percent to water clean-up, parks and trails programs; and 24 percent for the arts, including improving arts education. The House bill divides the money slightly differently.

Senate fiscal experts estimate the tax would add $100 a year to purchases made by a family earning $75,000 income annually.

Pogemiller said lawmakers and governors in the past few years have not adequately funded outdoors, clean-water and arts programs. The Senate majority leader said he would prefer to raise income taxes to pay for the programs, but GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other policymakers would not agree.

Pogemiller agreed that "in a perfect world" a budget decision should not be in the Constitution, but he hinted that more money would not be available as long as Pawlenty is in office.

"I think we need to consider the moment of history we are in," Pogemiller said. "Are we going to wait four more years?"

Pogemiller argued that if voters approve the constitutional amendment, more revenue increases for other needs would be easier for lawmakers to pass.

During the Senate committee meeting, no one disputed the need for more money in the three areas the bill would fund. But there were concerns that Pogemiller was using the Constitution as a funding mechanism. Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, was chief among those complainers.

"I am growing leery of financing through the Constitution," Langseth said before he, Skoe, Bakk and Sen. John Marty of Roseville joined Republicans to oppose Pogemiller's bill. "We as a Legislature have to set the priorities."

Langseth voted for the same bill last year, but said that even after 33 years as a lawmaker he can "live and learn."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.