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Outdoors amendment: Voters asked to tax themselves

Former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams speaks out against a proposal to increase the state sales tax to support outdoors and arts programs. He said the increase would cost Minnesotans $11 billion over the 25-year life of the higher tax. Photo by Don Davis, St. Paul Capitol Bureau.

By Don Davis

St. Paul Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Most Minnesotans agree the state's water needs to be cleaned up.

They support parks, trails and the wide variety of arts programs found around the state.

On Nov. 4, Minnesota voters decide whether to their money where their mouth is by raising sales tax 0.375 percent via a constitutional amendment that keeps the increase in place for 25 years.

Then-Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls launched a constitutional amendment effort to improve hunting and fishing opportunities 10 years ago. As leverage to gain votes, supporters have enlarged the plan to include money for clean water, enhanced prairies and forests, better fish and game habitat, parks, trails, arts and history programs - and now propose to increase taxes instead of taking funds out of existing taxes.

The state Revenue Department estimates the tax increase, scheduled to begin next July 1, would bring in $11 billion during the amendment's 25-year life.

Supporters emphasize the politically popular outdoors part of the amendment, downplaying the more controversial arts funding, saying arts only would receive 20 percent of the new money.

Vote Yes for Minnesota campaign organizers say lawmakers have not provided adequate money for efforts to clean the state's water or for other outdoors-related programs.

"How are we going to do that in the next 30 years?" asked Ken Martin, the Vote Yes campaign manager.

Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, offered a simple answer as an amendment opponent: "That's why we elect legislators - to take care of this."

Vote Yes claims more than 300 organizations as supporters, most of which could see some money from the added tax. Opponents can claim far fewer groups, most notably the state Chamber of Commerce, Taxpayers League of Minnesota and Farm Bureau.

Money also is on the Vote Yes side. It probably will spend $5 million for the campaign, while opponents have about $100,000 in the bank.

Although the proposed constitutional amendment requires a third of the money raised to go to clean up Minnesota water, specific spending decisions on that and other beneficiaries will come only after advisory committees suggest how legislators should spend it. Lawmakers have the final spending say, although the amendment would forbid them removing existing money from programs the amendment covers.

Former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, who heads the opposition, said Minnesotans already pay enough taxes to take care of their needs.

"How much does government need?" the Republican asked, calling the new tax a "slush fund."

While Grams said water already is cleaner than in years past, and was hesitant to call for more outdoors and arts spending, Paap said his Farm Bureau members have no quarrel with added outdoors funding.

However, amending the constitution to raise taxes is objectionable to Farm Bureau members, Paap added.

President Phil Krinkie of the Taxpayers League said Vote Yes supporters have a vested interest in the vote.

"Three hundred special interest groups are looking for a windfall," Krinkie said.

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This is what Minnesota voters will see on the Nov. 4 ballot:

"Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate funding to protect our drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve our arts and cultural heritage; to support our parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore our lakes, rivers, steams, and groundwater by increasing the sales and use tax rate beginning July 1, 2009, by three-eighths of one percent on taxable sales until the year 2034?"