Dedicated funding passes

Joe
Albert

Associate Editor

Dedicated funding passesIn a decision that
could change the face of Minnesota’s outdoors, lawmakers last week
approved a bill that places on the ballot in November a question
asking voters if they want to constitutionally dedicate money to
fish and wildlife habitat, clean water, parks and trails, and the
arts.

Voters will be asked to increase the state sales tax by 3/8 of
one percent, or from 6.5 percent to 6.875 percent. The difference:
about 4 cents on a $10 purchase, or 40 cents on a $100
purchase.

In round terms, of the total amount the tax would raise ($300
million per year), $100 million a year would go to habitat, $100
million a year to clean water, $59 million a year to arts, and $43
million a year to parks and trails. (I know these numbers don’t add
up to $300 million; they’re just rough figures.)

A few thoughts on the matter, hopefully to help clear up some
confusion (the amount of just plain wrong information out there is
astounding).

€ Nobody likes a tax increase, but this isn’t going to get done
without one. For those who say the increase would hurt the state’s
poor and downtrodden, remember there is no sales tax on necessities
like food and clothing.

€ Gov. Tim Pawlenty cannot veto constitutional amendments.
That’s what this is.

€ This money will not replace existing sources of funding. It
will supplant what’s already being spent.

€ The bill has morphed over the years and now includes such
add-ons as the arts. Lots of people aren’t thrilled about a tax
increase that, partially, is funneled to the arts. Nor am I. But
it’s worth it to swallow hard and check ‘Yes,’ given the much
larger habitat and clean water amounts. Remember, there was a time
not long ago when the arts were to receive a much larger amount and
sportsmen beat the amount down to its current level.

€ The question of where the money will be spent is a legitimate
one. If it’s passed, the Constitution will say the habitat money
will be spent on these items: to restore, protect, and enhance
wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat for game, fish, and
wildlife. And the clean water money like this: to protect, enhance,
and restore water quality in lakes, rivers, and streams. Still,
there are benefits to an even more detailed accounting.

€ Who spends the money also must be answered. In all likelihood,
it will be parceled out in the same manner the Legislature divvies
up money currently, but done so within the parameters of what the
Constitution says. Some sporting groups are backing the idea of a
citizens council – legislators likely also will be included – that
would decide how the habitat money is spent. (Like the way state
lottery dollars are spent, that council, if it’s created, likely
would make recommendations to the Legislature, which ultimately
would decide where it’s spent. Speaking of which, that model –
reworked a couple years ago – seems like a pretty logical one to
take a cue from.)

This will be done as separate legislation. Opinions vary, but
I’m of the belief a council has to exist, and that it has to be in
place before this hits the ballot. Many sportsmen don’t trust
politicians, and a council seems to offer extra assurance it will
be spent wisely.

€ It’s hard for me to see this passing without more details
about how the money will be spent, and who will spend it. Not just
the habitat money, but the clean water, parks and trails, and arts
money, too. Without further details and explanation, people will
look at it as just another tax hike.

€ There’s an argument that goes something like this: Why budget
via the Constitution when it’s legislators’ job to set budgets and
direct spending? Because for the outdoors, they haven’t done a good
enough job over the years, despite the noble efforts of a handful
of them, past and present. Outdoors and the environment (and, so
I’ve been told, arts, too) are the easiest things in the world to
cut, so when times get tight and tough decisions have to be made,
politicians historically have stiffed those causes. Amending the
state Constitution isn’t the most desirable thing in the world to
do, but it sure seems necessary if we’re going to have woods,
waters, and prairies to enjoy 50 years from now.

€ Another argument says passage of this sets a bad precedent,
and that others will want spending for their causes set forth in
the Constitution. Maybe so, but, as I wrote earlier, it’s not a
desirable thing to do. This legislation originally was introduced
more than nine years ago and has been a hot topic ever since. It
took that long just for legislators to allow citizens to vote on
the matter. Supporters say that’s too long, but in that time the
idea was fleshed out and it could have died on numerous occasions.
It never did, because at some point enough people decided the
state’s outdoors were deserving of a dedicated source of funding. I
just don’t see how this is going to open the floodgates.

€ For those who say they’ll vote against the current amendment,
hope it fails, then bring it back as a clean bill – one with just
the habitat portion and no tax increase – do you really, in all
honesty, think that’s possible? Convince me it can be done and on
the ballot in two years – realistically taking into account such
things as politics in this state, how long it’s taken to get where
we’re at today, and the current state of the resources – and I’ll
listen. Otherwise, I’m voting ‘Yes’ in November.

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