Two viewpoints on whether the Minnesota Constitution should be amended to dedicate funding to protect our drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game and wildlife habitat; to preserve our arts and cultural heritage; to support our parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore our lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater by increasing the sales and use tax rate beginning July 1, 2009, by three-eighths of one percent on taxable sales until the year 2034?
No: We elect leaders to make decisions on our behalf. This is an end run around that.
By VERNE C. JOHNSON and PAUL GILJE
It's astounding that the fundamental issue about the environmental constitutional amendment on the November ballot in Minnesota is being virtually ignored by many major media outlets. Certainly the outdoors, clean air and water and the arts are valuable parts of our lives. But whether their needs are justified has nothing to do with our opposition and recommendation to vote no.
The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment is not, as has been claimed, a grant of power to the people. It is the opposite. It is a subtle transfer of power away from elected officials and, consequently, an erosion of representative democracy.
Think back to your high school civics class. In a representative democracy, we elect the governor and Legislature and charge them with deciding how much money state government needs and where the money should be spent.
Lawmakers always are faced with demands that vastly exceed revenues. They assemble every two years, with a budget recommendation from the governor. They debate, they change, they add, they subtract. They work on the tax and fee side, they work on the spending side, and ultimately they enact a two-year budget. Not satisfactory to everyone by any means, but it's representative democracy.
The alternative represented by the amendment is to select a few functions for favored treatment, without determining if they are more important than others, and to guarantee them a special piece of the revenue pie, via the Constitution, thereby keeping the governor and Legislature, our elected representatives, out of the process.
But which functions don't believe they need special treatment? The educators want more money for education; the doctors and nurses, for health care; the police and firefighters, for public safety, and so on.
If this amendment passes, what amendment will we see next? Don't think for a moment there's not a domino effect here.
This is the second such amendment in as many state elections. In 2006 voters approved an amendment to grab a slice of the sales tax and reserve it for transit and highways. We opposed that amendment, too. We'd not be surprised if education stepped forward next, what with a budgetary shortfall for the upcoming biennium already a real possibility and with educators seeking billions more.
Minnesotans need better leadership from their elected officials, who put the measure on the ballot in the first place. Our governor and Legislature were elected to make tough choices among competing interests -- even when doing so might anger some constituents and satisfy others.
Lawmakers overlooked the amendment's inflexibility. If it passes, it is likely to be on the books long after readers of this article are deceased. Once enacted, an amendment can be repealed only via an extremely difficult process. First the House and Senate by majority vote must agree to submit an amendment to the voters. It's much tougher to get agreement to repeal an existing provision than to insert a new one. Then the measure must be submitted to the public in a general election, with a requirement for approval from a majority of all voters at the election, whether or not they vote on the measure. We take no comfort in a 25-year sunset provision in the Legacy Amendment. We already can imagine the arguments to keep it in place.
The amendment is unnecessary. Our recommendation prior to the 2008 session -- that lawmakers accomplish their objectives by statute, not by the Constitution -- was ignored. If the amendment fails, lawmakers can still provide the same amount of money as called for in the amendment if they determine the amount is justified compared with other demands on the budget. All they need to do is act before next July, when an approved amendment would have gone into effect. Importantly, voters would know where their legislators and governor stand on the issue.
The people of Minnesota should vote no in November and send a clear message to lawmakers that we're paying them to do what we elected them to do and that we are committed to preserving and protecting representative democracy.
Verne C. Johnson is chairman of the Civic Caucus, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to stimulate involvement in public affairs. Paul Gilje is the organization's coordinator.
Yes: We've waited too long to protect the waters that make Minnesota special.
By STEVE MORSE
It was 1972 when President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act. I was in junior high school.
Now, 36 years -- and a generation -- later, Minnesota is still seeking a solution for cleaning up its lakes, rivers and streams, as directed by that landmark legislation. As the father of two small children, I want to wake up Nov. 5 knowing that we've voted to clean up our water and protect the Minnesota we love for future generations.
The solution is on the Nov. 4 ballot; it's the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. This change to the state Constitution will provide the money necessary to meet the vision declared by our nation's leaders nearly four decades ago.
It's about time.
In total, 40 percent of the lakes, rivers and streams tested by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are polluted and do not meet basic health standards. That's two in five lakes tested that are too dirty for swimming or fishing. They are contaminated with animal and human waste; with phosphorus that creates green, slimy algae; with sediment; with run-off, and with other contaminants. Most recently the news was filled with reports that Atrazine, a common weed-killer used on corn, is showing up in lakes in northern Minnesota, far from farm country.
It's a disgrace. It's especially disappointing on two fronts: 1) 85 percent of the waters where we paddle and fish have yet to be tested. Basically, we are gambling every time we take a swim or drop a line. And 2) Minnesota has not figured out a way to pay for statewide testing and cleanup of our waters. Minnesotans want this work to be done, yet our elected leaders have repeatedly fallen short. Overall, general state funding for our lakes, natural areas, parks and wildlife is at a 30-year low, less than 1 percent of our state budget. That's not only a shame, it's a travesty.
Since 2003, a broad-based coalition -- including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota Farm Bureau, the Minnesota Farmers Union, local governments, state agencies and environmental organizations -- has worked together to find a solution so we can leave our children a clean-water legacy.
It has been a five-year struggle with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature. First, we recommended a user fee on water connections and then requested general-fund appropriations, but received no funding. In subsequent years, we received some one-time allocations and a trickle of ongoing allocations. But all of the money currently provided will run out by next July. This may be a good start, but it clearly falls short of protecting and passing on our state's legacy of quality lakes, rivers and streams.
The good news is that, in 2008, the Legislature agreed to place the Legacy Amendment on the ballot. If approved by voters, it will generate $90 million to $100 million annually to protect and restore our lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater. This is one-third of the money that will be raised by this amendment; another third will protect our land and wildlife habitat, and the final third will support our parks, trails, arts and arts education.
This amendment will cost the average Minnesota household less than $5 a month -- a small price to pay to protect the Minnesota we love.
By passing a constitutional amendment, we -- as citizens -- will guarantee that these new funds will be used only for protecting Minnesota's water, land and legacy. They cannot be diverted by others for their own purposes.
Voting for the amendment is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It has the support of Republicans, Democrats, sportsmen and women, conservation and environmental organizations, the League of Women Voters, and more than 200 organizations representing many hundreds of thousands of moms, dads and other residents across our state.
And your vote counts: If you cast a ballot but skip the amendment, the state counts it as a no vote. So make your own choice.
We cannot wait. The timing is critical for the lakes, rivers and streams, wildlife and natural areas that make Minnesota special. We need the sanctity of our state's Constitution to protect them for my children and yours.
Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a statewide coalition of 80 nonprofit conservation and environmental organizations, chaired the Impaired Waters Stakeholder Process from 2003 to 2005. His organization would receive none of the funds raised by the amendment.