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Voters asked to raise tax

ST. PAUL -- Most Minnesotans agree the state's water needs to be cleaned up. They support parks, trails and a wide variety of arts programs.

On Nov. 4, voters will decide whether they favor those issues enough to raise the state sales tax 0.375 percent through a constitutional amendment that keeps the increase in place for 25 years.

Then-Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls launched a constitutional amendment effort to improve hunting and fishing opportunities 10 years ago. As leverage to gain votes, supporters have enlarged the plan to include money for clean water, enhanced prairies and forests, better fish and game habitat, parks, trails, arts and history programs -- and now propose to increase taxes instead of taking funds out of existing taxes.

The state Revenue Department estimates the tax increase, which would begin July 1, 2009, would bring in $11 billion during the amendment's 25-year life.

Supporters emphasize the politically popular outdoors part of the amendment, downplaying the more controversial arts funding, saying arts only would receive 20 percent of the new money.

Vote Yes for Minnesota campaign organizers say lawmakers have not provided adequate money for efforts to clean the state's water or for outdoors-related programs.

"How are we going to do that in the next 30 years?" asked Ken Martin, the Vote Yes campaign manager.

Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, offered a simple answer as an amendment opponent: "That's why we elect legislators -- to take care of this."

Vote Yes claims more than 300 organizations as supporters, most of which could see some money from the added tax. Opponents claim far fewer groups, most notably the state Chamber of Commerce, Taxpayers League of Minnesota and Farm Bureau.

Money also is on the Vote Yes side. It probably will spend $5 million for the campaign, while opponents have about $100,000 in the bank.

For Ryan Heiniger, the new money would mean an opportunity to clean the state's waters so plants and animals could return to now-polluted lakes and streams.

"If we keep doing the same things at the same rate, we are not going to achieve our mission and our vision," the Ducks Unlimited Iowa and Minnesota conservation director said.

"This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Heiniger said. "There is a lot at stake, certainly, with the conditions of our lakes and rivers."

Heiniger talked about a 425-acre Murray County lake that was like 40 percent of waters the state has checked: It contained too many pollutants.

"It virtually had no vegetation," he said. "It had no food for plants and wildlife."

Conservationists drained the lake and began working to prevent pollution, including phosphorus, from entering the watershed. Now that the lake is full of water again, plants have returned and ducks and other water fowl may find it a friendly rest stop as they migrate.

"It needs to be replicated in many places throughout the state," Heiniger said.

Many of the state's 5,000 shallow lakes are in the same situation as the one in Murray County, he added, as are many deeper lakes and streams.

Although the proposed constitutional amendment requires a third of the money raised to go to clean up Minnesota waters, specific spending decisions on that and other beneficiaries will come only after advisory committees suggest how legislators should spend it. Lawmakers have the final say, although the amendment would forbid them removing existing money from programs the amendment covers.

Former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, who heads the opposition, said Minnesotans already pay enough taxes to take care of their needs.

"How much does government need?" the Republican asked, calling the new tax a "slush fund."

While Grams said water already is cleaner than in years past and was hesitant to call for more outdoors and arts spending, Paap said his Farm Bureau members have no quarrel with added outdoors funding.

However, amending the constitution to raise taxes is objectionable to Farm Bureau members, Paap added.

President Phil Krinkie of the Taxpayers League said Vote Yes supporters have a vested interest in the vote.

"Three hundred special interest groups are looking for a windfall," Krinkie said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.