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Outdoors amendment begins legislative path

ST. PAUL - Minnesota sportsmen, environmentalists and arts supporters say paying a penny, or a little more, on every $4 purchase is a good investment in their interests.

Debate on a bill raising the sales tax to support those programs began Wednesday in a Minnesota Senate committee.

In the Senate alone, five bills are being considered, although they could merge into one as early as next week. Two major questions must be answered: How much would taxes rise and what special interest groups would share in the bounty?

Wednesday's debate was a continuation of a decade's worth of discussion on the issue that then-Sen. Bob Lessard introduced to provide guaranteed money for fish and wildlife programs.

Lessard, who served northern Minnesota, on Wednesday held a finger and thumb so almost no light shined through: "We were this close to passing this bill on three occasions."

He predicted this will be the year lawmakers finally accept his idea.

Lessard's idea has grown, and now would fund parks, trails, forest purchases, water clean-up and, maybe, the arts under proposals now being considered.

All five Senate bills would ask voters in the 2008 election if they want the state Constitution to force a sales tax increase to fund the programs. Four of the Senate's five bills on the subject would increase the tax 0.25 percent, which amounts to a penny on a $4 purchase. The fifth would raise the tax slightly more.

Emphasis is placed on funding outdoors-related programs in all the bills.

"Minnesota's outdoors heritage is matched by no other, and I want to keep it that way," said Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, author of one of the bills and chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee that began considering the bills Wednesday. "We need to act now to ensure Minnesotans are not denied what our forefathers have enjoyed."

Chaudhary said current outdoors-related spending equals 1 percent of the state's $31 billion, two-year budget, and that is not enough.

Chances for the proposal improved this year with Democrats in control of the House and Senate. In the past few years, a Republican-controlled House rejected raising the sales tax, but many GOP leaders would accept taking outdoors money out of the current tax. Democrats wanted to increase the tax so cuts would not be needed elsewhere.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty also has supported funding outdoors programs from the existing sales tax, but he has no say in constitutional amendments since they go directly from the Legislature to voters.

One of the hang-ups in years past has been whether to fund arts via the dedicated tax amendment. Some outdoors activists say the arts should be included to widen legislative support.

Three of the five Senate proposals would fund the arts and public broadcasting.

Sean Dowse of Red Wing's T.B. Sheldon Arts Center told Chaudhary's committee that recent state budget cuts have hurt the arts. "Including arts will help us maintain arts."

Dowse called it a "double whammy" when the state cut its direct arts support and then Red Wing cuts its support because the state reduced aid it received.

The committee will hear more testimony Monday and could consider a single bill combining parts of the five proposals later in the week.

A bill written by Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, would require some of the sales tax money be used to buy Northland forest land that paper companies are offering for sale.

Saxhaug said he does not want to see all the forest land, just now becoming available, bought by private interests.

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.