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Lawmakers vow renewed effort to direct more money toward resources
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
May 2, 2002

A proposal to boost spending on natural resources preservation may be on the fast track for approval at the Legislature. Key lawmakers have recently rallied around a plan to dedicate a portion of the sales tax to a natural resources fund. They're predicting the plan could go to voters for final approval on the November ballot. But some say the plan would siphon important dollars away from other state functions.

The plan would amend the state Constitution to dedicate 3/16 of 1 percent of sales tax revenues to environmental conservation and preservation programs. Supporters say that amounts to roughly $115 million a year.

Sen. Bob Lessard, I-International Falls, chief author of the bill, says dedicating that money to wetlands, streams and state parks would be an important step towards preserving the state's natural assets.

"We have an opportunity this session to enact landmark legislation that will leave for future generations the same outdoor experiences and quality of life that we have. It's not for the people in this room. It's not just all the legislators. It's for our children and their children," Lessard said.

But critics in the past have noted the sales tax is used to fund a wide range of state programs - from education to public safety to nursing home care. They worry that dedicating a portion of those revenues to the environment will effectively tie the hands of legislators and prevent them from weighing competing state interests.

But Rep. Mark Holsten, R-Stillwater, says there's no reason to believe other state priorities will suffer. And he says the current budget shortfall illustrates the need for the committment to environmental funding.

Holsten, who is carrying the bill in the House, says in crunch times, lawmakers often expect natural resource dollars to be sacrificed.

"Put that aside and say we want this to be our contribution to make sure that the environment - time of good or time of bad - will always have a placeholder to protect our water, to protect our lands, and clean our air," he said.

Gov. Jesse Ventura's administration, however, is taking a dim view of the proposal. Spokesman John Wodele says it's poor fiscal management to lock funds into a dedicated account without a clear plan for how to make up for those missing dollars. The governor's signature isn't required for the measure to appear as a proposed constitutional amendment on the fall ballot. But Wodele says, despite Ventura's concern for the state's natural resources, he'll still oppose the plan. Wodele says there's something ironic about a Legislature proposing new spending when it's deadlocked over how to close a multi-billion dollar budget gap projected over the next three years.

"The Legislature has not dealt with that. They have not dealt with the current biennium. And they are standing up to microphones in front of everyone and saying they want to spend more money. That just is blatantly irresponsible," Wodele said.

Wodele says political maneuvering has given the bill new life. And supporters aren't denying it. Recently, all five of the major DFL and Republican gubernatorial candidates signed on in support of the plan. And Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum, himself a supporter, says that has re-energized the bill.

"The change that took place recently was the support of all the gubernatorial candidates. And maybe it's politics, maybe it's policy, maybe it's just the timing, maybe it's just the opportunity. But when all those persons who are running for governor seem to indicate their support and you seize that day, you seize the opportunity on their support, I think that that's something very important," said Sviggum.

House and Senate committees will hold hearings on the bill early next week. If approved, the question would be put to voters in November. If the plan survives that test, the sales tax dedication would begin in 2006.