Minnesota voters approved an increase in the state sales tax for the next 25 years to fund clean water, the outdoors and the arts. The amendment to the state constitution increases the state sales tax by three-eighths of a percent beginning next July and will raise about $275 million a year.
Passage of the amendment caps a 10-year effort by hunting and conservation groups to dedicate more funds for wildlife habitat and other natural areas of the state. Environmental groups, parks and trails supporters and arts advocates joined the effort more recently, and persuaded legislators to put the issue on the ballot for voters to decide.
"It means that the Minnesota that we all grew up with and loved will be protected and passed on to future generations," said Ken Martin, campaign manager for Vote Yes campaign.
Polls have shown that a majority of Minnesotans favor more funding for the outdoors, but debate about the ballot measure focused on whether increasing the sales tax was necessary, and whether dedicating the funding through a constitutional amendment was the best way to ensure funding for wildlife habitat, parks, trails and water cleanup.
Phil Krinkie, former state legislator and president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, opposed the amendment because it would add an extra tax burden at a time of economic hardship. Krinkie said that advocates for the tax need to keep true to their promises about cleaning up rivers and providing thousands of acres of improved wildlife habitat.
"We don't need more studies, we don't need more bureaucratic agencies, we don't need more land taken out of production for farmers, we don't need more regulation," Krinkie said.
Peggy Ladner, director of the Nature Conservancy of Minnesota, said that the timing for more funds to conserve forests and other lands is perfect.
"We feel there's a window of opportunity during the next decade to protect some of these natural areas before everything is plowed under and paved over," she said.
Exit polling pointed to a big Democratic turnout in Minnesota, which may have given a boost to the amendment's chances. Pre-election polling showed that Democrats strongly favored the amendment.
To be passed, a constitutional amendment must receive a majority of votes from those who went to the polls. Those who skipped voting on the outdoors question had their non-votes counted, in effect, as votes against the measure.
An agenda for change
The measure will raise the state sales tax from 6.5 to 6.875 percent, beginning July 1, 2009. That will increase the tax on a $100 purchase by 38 cents.
Outdoor habitat projects and clean water remediation will each receive one-third of the revenue, estimated to be about $90 million apiece.
The remaining third will be divided between statewide arts groups and projects, which will receive 19.75 percent or $54 million, and parks, trails and zoos, which will receive 14.25 percent or $39 million.
A coalition of support
Supporters included a coalition of 350 environmental, conservation, sportsmen and arts groups, who raised $3.6 million to campaign for the sales tax amendment. They argued that natural resources and the arts have been hit hard by budget cuts in recent years, and need an infusion of long-term money to address pollution, development and population growth.
"It's by far and away the most important issue I've been involved with because of its importance for future generations," said former state Sen. Bob Lessard, who spent six hours Tuesday with a large sign of support across from a polling site near the State Capitol.
Opponents included the Republican Party of Minnesota, the Taxpayers League and other groups who contended that a sales tax add-on is the last thing Minnesotans need during a recession.
Ron Carey, state GOP chairman, and others argued that dedicating part of the sales tax to specific areas until 2034 is not prudent tax policy, and that it would tie the hands of legislators.
Dennis Anderson contributed to this report. Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388