Senate DFLers offer a dedicated funding bill

By Joe Albert

Staff Writer

St. Paul – As the clock ticked toward the March 1 start of the
legislative session, House and Senate democrats were busy pushing
their conservation agenda.

Last week, House DFLers announced the formation of a
Conservation Caucus. Among other conservation issues, the caucus
will seek to recapture about $60 million per year in lottery money,
which currently goes into the state’s General Fund, to fund a water
clean-up plan known as the ‘True Clean Water Legacy Act.’

And Monday, Senate DFLers, led by Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples,
unveiled their proposal to constitutionally dedicate about $191
million per year to fish and wildlife, clean water, parks and
trails, as well as broader ‘cultural amenities.’ Sams, as he has in
the past, will author the bill.

‘We need a long-term, reliable source of funding if we are going
to keep the core qualities that define our state,’ Sams said. ‘When
people think of Minnesota, they think of hunting, fishing, outdoor
recreation, parks, clean water, arts, and culture.’

Conservation leaders Lance Ness of the Fish and Wildlife
Legislative Alliance and John Schroers of the Minnesota Outdoor
Heritage Alliance (also both of the Duck Rally) said they
appreciated Sams’ leadership in introducing the idea, and that the
bill was the start of what’s likely to be a long process.

Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said including
arts and humanities in the bill is beyond the original intent of
dedicating funds solely for conservation.

‘Pretty soon you are going to dedicate something to education,
and something to stadiums, and something to what have you,’ Sviggum
said. ‘Then you dilute the effect.’

He questioned whether DFLers were serious about sending a
constitutional amendment to voters in November, or wanted to add
things like arts onto the bill and ‘love it to death, so to
speak.’

For their part, Senate DFLers say there is more support in their
caucus for a bill that includes arts, said Senate Majority Leader
Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar.

‘We will do everything we possibly can to move this initiative
forward,’ Johnson said.

Sams’ bill would add one-quarter of 1 percent to the existing
6.5 percent sales tax. Taking it out of existing taxes would pit
conservation and the environment against things like education,
Johnson said.

The largest proportion of the dollars in Sams’ bill – $65
million or 34 percent – would go to fish and wildlife resources.
The remaining $126 million would be split equally between parks and
trails, clean water initiatives, and the arts, humanities, museums,
and public broadcasting.

‘There is not money (for conservation) within the current 6.5
percent (sales tax),’ Sams said.

Sviggum says there is, and that House Republicans are likely to
pass a bill that would dedicate a percentage of the current sales
tax to fund conservation and environmental programs.

Asked whether there is a way to reconcile the two positions –
taking money out of the existing sales tax, or increasing the sales
tax – Sviggum said: ‘Probably not.’

A bill introduced last year in the House by Rep. Tom Hackbarth,
R-Cedar, would dedicate one-quarter of 1 percent of the existing
sales tax. Half would go to hunting and fishing, the other half
would be used to fund water clean-up efforts. That bill stalled in
the Taxes Committee.

Ness’ and Schroers’ three groups support that concept, but don’t
specify whether the money should come from existing or new
taxes.

The concept to dedicate one-quarter of 1 percent and use half of
it for clean water would fully fund a Clean Water Legacy Act, which
proponents say will cost about $80 million per year.

Sams’ bill would funnel about $42 million per year to clean
water initiatives.

The House DFL version, by reclaiming 60 percent of lottery
proceeds, would amount to about $60 million per year for water
clean-up. The remaining money could be bonded for, said Frank Moe,
DFL-Bemidji.

Conservation caucus

The caucus includes five sub-groups, including a Fish and Game
Committee chaired by Moe and Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul.
The goal is, ‘bigger bucks, more ducks, and fish you can eat,’
Hansen said.

Ness said he hoped formation of the caucus wasn’t an
election-year ploy, but rather an attempt to affect change in
conservation in the state.

‘It’s nice to see some action being taken,’ Ness said.

Schroers said he’s not aware of similar caucuses in state
government, and called it a ‘positive’ development.

‘Hopefully they will get together and discuss our issues
internally,’ he said. ‘That would be a good thing.’

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