How to spend $275 million on outdoors, clean water, arts?

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2008 - 10:38 PM

The new tax is expected to yield $275 million a year, and lawmakers will need to decide which groups or individuals should have input on how it's spent.

Now that Minnesotans have approved a sales tax increase to fund the outdoors, clean water and the arts, state officials are turning to the job of deciding who -- exactly -- will get to decide how to spend the $275 million in annual revenue.

The Legislature has overall responsibility for determining how the state tax dollars will be spent, but councils or committees that include citizen members will provide advice.

The new constitutional amendment will raise about $275 million a year by increasing the sales tax by 3/8 of a percent, or 38 cents on a $100 purchase. It becomes effective in July, and will continue for 25 years.

With all of the state's precincts reporting, the amendment won the support of 56 percent of those who went to the polls. Thirty-nine percent voted "no," and 5 percent of voters skipped the question and were counted as votes against the measure.

Of the new tax revenue, 33 percent, or about $90 million, will fund outdoors and wildlife habitat projects; another 33 percent will go to clean water programs; 19.75 percent, or $54 million, will be directed to statewide arts and cultural groups; and 14.25 percent, or $39 million, will be used for parks and trails.

Ryan Heiniger, director of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited in Minnesota, said that proposals to improve wildlife habitat will likely include restoration of wetlands and prairies, acquisition of special lands and easements to prevent forest development and fragmentation.

One of the next major steps, Heiniger said, is the appointment of eight citizens and four legislators to the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council, authorized by the Legislature and named after former state senator and sportsman Bob Lessard. The panel's mission will be to sift through funding proposals and to make annual recommendations to the Legislature.

Similarly, the existing Clean Water Council, consisting of 19 citizens appointed by the governor and 4 state agency representatives, is likely to play an important role in advising lawmakers about funding for surface water, ground water and drinking water problems and projects.

State Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, and chair of the House environment finance division, said it isn't clear yet whether more than one council or group will advise lawmakers on how to spend funds for water projects, or for the proportion of sales tax revenue designated for parks and trails of regional or statewide importance.

However, said Wagenius, legislators will not be able to use the new sales tax for other purposes.

"This is not money to backfill agency shortfalls," she said. "It's the governor's responsibility to have budgets that cover the basic functions of state agencies."

The recipients of revenue dedicated to the arts might include community theaters, school programs that allow children to view plays, orchestras or art exhibits or initiatives from the state's 1,300 to 1,600 arts organizations.

Yet to be determined is which group or groups will advise lawmakers on those matters, said Larry Redmond, lobbyist for the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

"We have a pretty sophisticated state Arts Board and regional arts councils that would likely be used, but that's up to the Legislature," he said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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