Dedicated funding OK’d in the Senate

By Joe Albert Staff Writer

St. Paul — At the DNR roundtable meetings earlier this year,
Gov. Tim Pawlenty jokingly said the idea to dedicate a portion of
the state sales tax to natural resources had passed out of the
House of Representatives.

Not yet, replied House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon. But
soon, he’s since promised, going so far as to guarantee the idea
will pass out of the body he leads.

Earlier this week, the Senate placed the dedicated funding ball
squarely in the House’s court when it passed – by a vote of 42-22 –
a dedicated funding bill sponsored by Sen. Dallas Sams,
DFL-Staples. The bill would increase the sales tax by 3/8 of 1
percent and fund things like fish and wildlife, clean water, parks,
trails, and zoos, as well as “cultural amenities” like arts and
humanities.

After eight years of discussion and pressure from sportsmen,
it’s the first time a dedicated funding bill has passed either
legislative body.

“Are you ready?” asked Lance Ness, president of the Fish and
Wildlife Legislative Alliance. “The bill passed.”

John Schroers, president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage
Alliance, called passage of the bill “historic.”

Gary Botzek, of the Minnesota Conservation Federation and
Minnesota Waters, and chair of Minnesota Environmental
Partnership’s government relations committee, called the passage
“monumental.”

The legislation breezed through the Senate and remained mostly
the same as when Sams introduced it. A separate measure in the
House, meanwhile, has been saddled with amendments, including
transportation funding and a ban on gay marriage.

That bill, introduced by Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, passed
through the state Government Finance Committee Tuesday morning and
was sent to the Ways and Means Committee.

Hackbarth’s bill had been amended in the House Taxes Committee
and looked almost like Sams’ bill, but it was amended Tuesday
morning and now would dedicate 1/8 of 1 percent of the existing
sales tax to fish and wildlife.

“The pressure’s on the House – let’s get it done,” Sams said.
“This is big. It was a big day for Minnesota.”

Sams’ bill would boost the sales tax to 6.875 percent, and put
the new money – about $277 million per year – into four pots:

  • 34 percent, or about $94 million, would go for fish and
    wildlife.
  • 22 percent, or about $61 million, would be spent to clean up
    the state’s lakes and rivers.
  • 22 percent would go to parks, trails, and zoos.
  • 22 percent would go to arts, humanities, museums, and public
    broadcasting.

Councils would be set up to recommend to the Legislature
spending from the various accounts. An 11-member Heritage
Enhancement Council – seven citizens and four legislators – would
oversee the fish and wildlife dollars. A 21-member Clean Water
Council would recommend appropriations of the water clean-up
money.

Shortly after the Senate passed Sams’ bill, Pawlenty issued a
statement noting appreciation for the Senate’s passage, but asking
for a more focused final version of the bill.

“Conservation and clean water are too important to be watered
down by other issues,” Pawlenty said. “While the arts and public
broadcasting are important, they do not rise to the level of being
in need of dedicated constitutional support.”

In addition to Hackbarth’s bill, another House bill introduced
by Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, as a companion to Sams’ bill,
remains alive. Ozment’s bill would increase by 1/4 of 1 percent the
state sales tax and split the proceeds between clean water and fish
and wildlife. Ozment’s bill remains in the Taxes Committee.

“There’s a bunch of work to do in the House yet,” Ness said.
“This puts quite a bit of pressure on the House to do
something.”

In an August interview with Outdoor News, Pawlenty said the
House has not been a roadblock to dedicated funding, and that the
“question is whether Senate DFL leadership will allow a bill to be
brought to a vote on the Senate floor.”

For dedicated funding to be placed on the November ballot, the
House would have to pass its own version. If that differed from the
Senate’s, a conference committee would be charged with hashing out
the differences.

Both Pawlenty and Sviggum have said they support dedicating
existing funds, rather than increasing the sales tax. However, a
proposed constitutional amendment doesn’t require Pawlenty’s
approval, nor can he veto it.

Despite the hurdles left to clear, Ness is optimistic about the
chance dedicated funding has at passage. He also noted passage in
the Senate came a year and one day following last April’s Rally for
Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water.

“I would say everyone is enthused and encouraged and excited,”
Ness said. “It’s very exciting.”

Both Ness and Schroers asked conservationists and sportsmen to
contact their legislators, particularly those in the House, and
tell them to support dedicated funding.

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