Dedicated funding talk turning to finer details

St. Paul – The promise has been made: Dedicated funding will be
voted upon early in the 2008 legislative session.

The bill awaiting legislative action would ask voters to raise
the state sales tax by 3/8 of 1 percent – just less than $300
million a year – and parcel it out between fish and wildlife
habitat, clean water, arts and cultural heritage, and parks and
trails.

What it wouldn’t do: Lay out exactly how the money would be
spent.

That’s been a bone of contention for some, particularly
sportsmen’s groups, who’ve said they want a council to oversee
spending of the habitat money.

A subcommittee of the Duck Rally has been discussing such a
governance structure in recent months, and the rally’s executive
committee was to discuss it at its meeting earlier this week.

The hope was to come out of that meeting with a governance
recommendation that all rally groups can support now and through
the legislative session, which begins Feb. 12, 2008, said Dave
Zentner, rally co-chair.

The subcommittee agreed, among other things, that there is a
need for a council to oversee the habitat money, the council should
include citizens, and that spending should follow a strategic plan.
It didn’t get into specifics like how many people should be on the
council.

Supporters hope the council has more weight than a “routine
advisory group,” as Zentner said, but lawmakers likely will have
final say over how the money is spent.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the Legislature is
going to continue its role in terms of appropriating the money,”
said Ryan Heiniger, director of conservation programs for Ducks
Unlimited in Minnesota.

In reality, people want citizens – those with relevant
experience and from geographically diverse parts of the state – to
be involved in the process and to help ensure accountability,
Heiniger said.

“Based on polling data as well as direct feedback Š it’s clear
that support is increased when citizens are involved,” he said.

Said Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota
Conservation Federation: “If it’s an advisory group, then the
Legislature may be more able and willing to accept a majority, or
all, stakeholders (on the council). If it’s a stronger position,
such as final say, then it’s unlikely the Legislature would be
willing to delegate that away.”

While it’s possible that a governance structure could be added
to the dedicated funding bill awaiting action, some say the
constitutional question of adding 3/8 of 1 percent to the state
sales tax should be passed as a separate item.

That’s Heiniger’s belief. He says the constitutional question
should be passed as early as possible in the session, and work
should begin “immediately thereafter” on the governance.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work ahead,” he said.

If the Legislature approves the bill, the constitutional
question would be on the statewide ballot during the Nov. 4, 2008
election.

MEP

Dedicated funding also is the top priority for the Minnesota
Environmental Partnership in the next session, according to MEP’s
John Tuma.

MEP isn’t getting involved in the governance issue, but is
focused on getting the bill passed as early as possible.

“We have to get our message out about what (dedicated funding)
is for,” Tuma said.

MEP’s second priority is the bonding bill; third is global
warming solutions, including methods by which to meet goals that
were set during the last session; and fourth is transit issues.

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