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Debate Saturday to highlight outdoors, arts amendment

DULUTH - A constitutional amendment question that is buried amid pre-election presidential and senatorial campaigns will be featured at a Saturday debate.

In the Nov. 4 election, Minnesota voters are being asked whether to raise the state sales tax 0.375 percent to fund outdoors and arts programs. Those on both sides of the issue will be part of the debate, sponsored by Forum Communications Company and the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The debate, open to the public, will last an hour and begins at noon Saturday in the Kirby Student Center's student lounge on the UMD campus. It will feature a well-known Duluth sportsman and a Twin Cities arts leader arguing for the amendment and two former Republican state senators presenting the anti-amendment side.

Debate sponsors say it is important to know about the amendment, even though it has received relatively little publicity.

"MAPL and Forum Communications have established a tradition sponsoring 'down ballot' debates every two years - debates involving policies and issues which voters won't find on the top of their ballots," said Wy Spano, director of the UMD program. "This year, providing information about the constitutional amendment proposing to dedicate funds to the environment and the arts is particularly important because each voter who fails to vote on the issue is counted as a 'no' vote."

Saturday's debate will be one of the few times that the proposed amendment will gain attention in a campaign season dominated by those spending millions of dollars to win the president and U.S. Senate races.

"Minnesota voters have heard little about this amendment because louder campaigns have drowned out talk about it," said debate moderator Don Davis, chief of Forum Communications' Minnesota Capitol Bureau that provides state government and political news to the company's 28 newspapers serving Minnesota. "We expect a debate focusing on specific issues Minnesotans should consider before going to the polls Nov. 4."

One panelist will be Dave Zentner of Duluth, who was involved in getting the amendment proposal to the voters. He testified at the state Capitol during many of the legislative hearings as the amendment led a 10-year journey to the ballot.

Zentner's qualifications to debate the amendment come thanks to 45 years of being active in the conservation movement, with conservation programs prime among those to benefit if the amendment passes. He is past national president of the Izaak Walton League of America.

Joining Zentner will be Lawrence Redmond of Minneapolis. He is a leader in the Vote Yes Minnesota campaign that is promoting the amendment and a long-time arts supporter.

Opposing the amendment will be former Sens. Linda Runbeck of Circle Pines and Carrie Ruud of Breezy Point.

Runbeck served in the Legislature 12 years and after losing a congressional race in the heavily Democratic St. Paul area, she became president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota for a time. The league is leading the campaign against the amendment.

Two years ago, Runbeck ran former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams' unsuccessful campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar.

Ruud served one term in the Minnesota Senate, representing an area from Bemidji to the south. Like Runbeck, as senator, Ruud often argued against increased state spending.

The proposed constitutional amendment goes to the voters after legislators passed it early this year. It would establish the higher sales tax for 25 years, funding programs related to clean water, parks, trails, wildlife habitat, arts and related programs.

Those favoring the amendment say legislators have not given those programs enough money over the years and argue that putting the additional spending in the Constitution is the only way to make sure work such as cleaning the state's waters goes forward.

Opponents say that even if the money is needed, amending the state's constitution is not the way to fund programs. Anti-amendment leaders such as Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap say Minnesotans elect legislators to make such decisions.

Many opponents question the need to raise $11 billion more for outdoors and arts programs over 25 years.