Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Dead-icated funding: Senate pulls the plug

By Joe Albert Staff Writer

St. Paul – Dedicated funding officially died for the year last
Thursday, when Senate DFLers opted not to return to the table to
negotiate.

Instead, a letter delivered by Senate Majority Leader Dean
Johnson, DFL-Willmar, informed House negotiators the Senate
wouldn’t be offering a counter-proposal, dashing hope for a special
session to deal with dedicated funding might be called.

‘When it comes to Minnesota’s habitat and natural resource
needs, a clear win was snatched from the jaws of victory by
election-year politics,’ said John Schroers, Minnesota Outdoor
Heritage Alliance president.

The Senate move came two days after House Republicans offered a
proposal that would have raised taxes by 1/8 of one percent for
clean water and fish and wildlife habitat.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who has carried the dedicated
funding bill for years, questioned the Senate’s desire to pass such
a bill.

‘The bottom line is they just didn’t want it on the ballot,’ he
said in reference to a belief that DFLers don’t want an initiative
on the ballot that might bring out conservative voters.

In his letter (Page 6), Johnson didn’t indicate that was the
case, but instead said the money the House was proposing to
dedicate wasn’t enough. He also said there wasn’t enough time to
pass the bill in the Legislature and carry out a public relations
effort to ensure its passage.

Dedicated funding will be a priority for the Senate in 2007,
Johnson said. (When the bill died in a Senate committee in 2005,
Johnson said at the time it was because the Senate deals with
constitutional questions only in even-numbered years.)

‘Failure to pass an amendment is a temporary setback,’ he said.
‘Passing an amendment that doesn’t accomplish our goal is a
permanent failure.’

The Senate got the jump on the House in passing a dedicated
funding bill, approving one in early April. That bill sought to
increase by 3/8 of one percent the state sales tax and divide the
revenue between fish and game habitat, clean water, parks and
trails, and the arts.

The House passed a bill in late April to dedicate 3/16 of one
percent of existing sales tax to the same causes, albeit at
different levels.

After saying for months the House wouldn’t support a tax
increase, Hackbarth proposed an approach that would have
accomplished a dedication with both a tax-rate bump and from
existing money. When the Senate didn’t accept that during the
regular session, Hackbarth and other House leaders offered the
proposal that would have relied on a tax increase.

‘I think they were surprised by every move we made,’ he said. ‘I
was negotiating against myself. I felt like a fool, but I didn’t
want the issue to die.’

During conference committee hearings, Hackbarth and others
criticized the Senate for being slow, or even willing to, bring
forward counter-offers. Johnson said in his letter the Senate still
believes its version of the bill is best.

In the end, observers were surprised the Senate didn’t offer a
counter-proposal to the House.

Gary Botzek, a lobbyist for multiple environmental and
conservation groups, figured the Senate would meet the House
halfway in its final offer and seek to raise the sales tax by 1/4
of one percent.

Dave Zentner, co-coordinator of the Duck Rally, was upbeat after
the House’s ‘bold’ move of offering the tax increase on Tuesday,
and disappointed by the Senate’s lack of a response.

‘To simply not even honor what I thought was a good-faith
proposal was amazing to me,’ he said. ‘(I was) absolutely
amazed.’

Hackbarth and House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, questioned
the Senate’s leadership. Rather than responding quickly to the
House offer last week, the Senate asked for 48 hours.

Hackbarth said he blamed neither Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples,
who carried the dedicated funding bill in the Senate, nor Sen. Tom
Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, who was on the conference committee, for
its demise.

‘They’re wonderful people; they wanted to get this done,’ he
said. ‘The stumbling block was leadership,’ and it extended beyond
Johnson.

Down the line

It seems clear that dedicated funding will be at the forefront
again next session, but it’s not clear what it will look like.

Hackbarth said he would bring a bill forward, but that it would
be different from past versions.

Botzek also said different versions – including those that don’t
rely on a constitutional amendment – may be introduced in the
future. Groups such as the Campaign for Conservation or Envision
Minnesota could be the driving forces behind those.

The Duck Rally coalition plans to meet in coming weeks to talk
about which direction to go, Zentner said.

‘Is dedicated funding by a constitutional amendment the way to
go?’ he said. ‘The answer might be yes, but we’re going to
re-examine it.’

Either way, the rally coalition will be back next year, and it
needs the continued help of those who’ve supported it, Zentner
said.

‘We haven’t given up and hope they won’t,’ he said.

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