ST. PAUL - Ten years of legislative debate over raising the sales tax to support outdoors and arts programs ended Thursday; now the public debate begins.
The House and Senate easily passed a constitutional amendment that would increase sales taxes 0.375 percent to spend on a range of outdoor programs - such as improving wetlands, cleaning the state's water and funding parks and trails - and arts and history programs.
The votes culminate an effort began more than 10 years ago by then-Sen. Bob Lessard as a way to keep funds flowing to outdoors programs. As years went by, it became obvious to supporters that the idea lacked support from urban lawmakers, so the arts provision was included, giving the measure critical mass needed to pass the Legislature.
The bill bypasses the governor and goes directly to voters in the Nov. 4 general election. A multi-million-dollar campaign to support the amendment is expected.
The House approved the measure 85-46, followed by the Senate, 46-17.
House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said $244 million would be produced by the amendment in 2010, and it should rise slightly after that.
The biggest complaint about the amendment is that it dedicates funding via the constitution, and opponents would prefer the Legislature making decisions on all funding needs year to year.
"Are we so hungry for new revenue ... that we are willing to compromise our core beliefs on fair taxation?" Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, asked. "I'm just not willing to do that today."
Bakk, Senate Taxes Committee chairman, said sales tax increases hurt the poor more than others.
Dave Zentner, Duluth conservationist and former president of the national Izaak Walton League of America, was elated with the Legislature's action Thursday.
"It's chills and tears," Zentner said. "I'm excited. I'm happy. We'll have a short celebration, then we'll get the whole conservation community together, and that's how we'll get the whole citizens community together. After November, then our generation will have really left a gift for generations to come."
Sertich said dedicating funding via the constitution is the last chance to making sure funding for important needs is guaranteed.
The amendment, if approved by voters Nov. 4, would increase the sales tax for 25 years before it expires.
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said he never has heard of a constitutional amendment with an end date.
Lanning said a border city lawmaker such as him could not vote for raising the sales tax when Moorhead competes against North Dakota's tax.
"I don't want to take a step backward and take us out of competition," he said.
But most lawmakers liked the amendment.
Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, has worked on outdoors funding issues for years, and said the amendment is important
Baby boomers, for instance, "are gong to be retired and they need something to do," Ozment said. The amendment, he said, would improve such things as hunting and fishing across Minnesota.
Supporters say outdoors and arts issues are so important to Minnesotans that they will support the amendment because about 1 million fishing licenses are sold annually, and about half that many deer hunting licenses and 60 percent of Minnesotans are involved in arts programs ranging from choir to woodworking to acting that stand to benefit from the amendment.
Sertich said people who hunt or fish often are told not to eat their prizes.
"This is affecting our quality of life," he said.
Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, countered those who argued the amendment is not a top legislative priority. He said the first need of communities is clean water, and a third of proceeds from the raised sales tax would go to programs cleaning the state water.
Another third of the new revenues would go to restore, protect and improve wetlands, prairies and forests.
Parks and trails would receive 14.25 percent of proceeds and arts and history programs would get 19.75 percent.
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, voted against the measure after telling fellow representatives: "We are doing something very serious today."
While "I'm not saying this is a horrible thing," Seifert said the Legislature should make outdoors and arts funding decisions on a case-by-case basis.
"To actually amend the state constitution and use it as a tax raising document should cause some pause," Seifert said.
"The first bill you are introducing is tax increase, not to balance the budget," he told Democrats, who control the Legislature.
"Reliable funding to enhance and protect our natural environment has never been more important," said Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji. "If passed by Minnesota voters, this amendment will finally establish a reliable funding mechanism capable of providing sustainable resources for our environment well into the future. Our children will inherit and enjoy the same prairies, streams and 10,000 lakes Minnesotans have always enjoyed."
News Tribune reporter Sam Cook contributed to this report.
An earlier version of the story was corrected to reflect to proposed sales tax amount.