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Outdoors, arts groups beginning campaign for constitutional amendment

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Minnesotans worried about the future of the state's natural resources and its cultural institutions will pay more to protect them, predicted advocates of a constitutional amendment directing new tax revenue to those areas.

Appearing at a picturesque lakeside park southwest of Minneapolis, the Vote Yes Minnesota coalition on Tuesday kicked off its five-month campaign to build support for an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution raising the state sales tax to pay for outdoors initiatives and arts programs.

"This campaign is about restoring Minnesota's heritage," former Gov. Arne Carlson said.

Carlson said raising taxes is not popular and he dislikes constitutionally dedicating funding, but the former Republican governor said both are necessary to preserve natural resources and cultural values for future generations.

Amendment supporters say 40 percent of Minnesota's lakes and streams are polluted, arts programs have not received adequate funding by the Legislature and wildlife habitat is disappearing.

Voters will decide Nov. 4 whether the 6.5 percent state sales tax should be increased by 0.375 percent. The revenue would be split among habitat preservation; water cleanup efforts; park and trail acquisition and improvement; and arts and cultural institutions.

Supporters do not dispute the challenge of convincing voters to raise a tax. But Ken Martin, Vote Yes Minnesota's campaign director, said Minnesotans have shown a willingness to invest in what they think is important.

"This campaign really is about protecting the Minnesota you love," he said.

Martin said he expects his and other pro-amendment groups will spend a total of $3 million to $5 million campaigning for its passage. Vote Yes Minnesota will look to support and donations from the general public as well as from a diverse collection of over 200 organizations, including arts associations, film groups and hunting and conservation groups. The list ranges from large organizations such as Ducks Unlimited to niche groups like the Pipestone-based Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers.

They will have opposition.

The fiscally conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota will campaign against the measure, League President Phil Krinkie said.

Amending the Constitution for this purpose would generate more revenue "for the state to squander," he said, and it is bad fiscal policy.

If voters approve the measure, it will mean less transparency in how tax dollars are spent, Krinkie said, because a panel of eight citizens and four legislators will recommend how to spend money generated from the tax increase. Lawmakers already rubber-stamp similar recommendations from a different legislative-citizen group, he said.

"The Constitution was never intended to act as an allocation of resources document," Krinkie said.

Krinkie would not say how much money his group will spend working against the ballot measure, but said the Taxpayers League of Minnesota bought radio ads and will make its statewide campaign known through literature, billboards, bumper stickers and word of mouth.

There already are dedicated state funds for outdoors purposes, said Krinkie, a Republican and former Minnesota House tax chairman. And, he added, revenue collected by the state should go through the normal legislative process.

"Why shouldn't their projects or their interests compete with everything else?" he asked.

Ryan Heiniger of Ducks Unlimited said his organization's 42,000 members will push for the amendment. Heiniger said sportsmen recognize the challenges facing Minnesota's wildlife habitat. The opportunity to dedicate tax dollars to help that cause will not happen again for decades, he said.

"We have to pass the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment for future generations," Heiniger said.

The Legislature in February approved putting the question on the ballot, but the idea is not new. Proposals to dedicate tax dollars to the outdoors -- specifically hunting, fishing and conservation causes -- were debated at the State Capitol for a decade.

Unable to get the measure on the ballot, amendment supporters brought arts groups into the fold, hoping to appeal to more voters as well as lawmakers whose backing was needed to get the measure on the ballot.

The Legislature failed to pass the amendment proposal in 2007, but it was among the first measures passed by the House and Senate earlier this year.

Pro-amendment groups want to make sure voters complete their ballots when they go to the polls; empty boxes next to the ballot question are considered "no" votes.

The legislation that put the amendment on the ballot is called the Dallas Sams Outdoor and Cultural Legacy Act. It is named after the late state senator who lobbied for an outdoors amendment before his death in 2007.

The legislative-citizen panel that would recommend how to spend the outdoors and arts funding is called the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council -- a nod to former state Sen. Bob Lessard, an International Falls DFLer and an early champion of a dedicated funding amendment.

Voters last approved a constitutional amendment in 2006, when they decided to dedicate all state tax revenue from new and used vehicle sales to transportation purposes.

Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.