The campaign to pass a state constitutional amendment to raise taxes for the outdoors, the environment and the arts may come down to whether voters see it as a handout to rich opera patrons or as boost for pastimes like fishing and biking loved by average Minnesotans.

The fight to frame voters' image of the proposal is only beginning.

Opponents argue that the campaign for the amendment -- which calls for a three-eighths percent increase in the state sales tax to raise some $276 million a year -- is being driven by the state's "liberal elite" to provide a 25-year taxpayer subsidy for the arts institutions they have long championed.

Alida Messinger, the ex-wife of former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and a major political contributor, has given $1 million to help pass the amendment.

C. Angus Wurtele, an honorary trustee at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, became another of the campaign's leading individual contributors when he pledged $40,000 three weeks ago.

Supporters are firing back, saying the opponents' argument is a cynical strategy to obscure the reality that the outdoors, the environment and the arts desperately need funding and have too often been left on the sidelines financially as state budgets face mounting pressure.

Opponents, they add, put an exaggerated focus on the arts -- a favorite target for anti-tax conservatives -- while hoping voters won't notice that less than 20 percent of the new money will actually go there.

"Eighty percent of this [amendment] is about water and preserving our natural resources," said Phillip Bahar, the Walker's chief of operations and administration. The outdoors, environment and the arts, said Bahar, are "the areas that make Minnesota a place that will attract talent from outside.

Lifestyles debate

With barely a month until the election, both sides in the amendment fight agree they are struggling to grab the attention of an electorate preoccupied with higher-profile contests and little informed about the nuances of the amendment. Making the stakes higher is the fact that every Minnesotan who votes in the November elections -- but chooses not to vote on the amendment -- will be counted as being against it.

Organizers for Vote Yes Minnesota claim support from groups as diverse as Ducks Unlimited and the Guthrie Theater, and individuals as different as radio personality Eleanor Mondale and Vikings legend Bud Grant.

Ken Martin, the Vote Yes campaign manager who headed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's campaign in Minnesota in 2004, said the campaign may spend as much as $5 million -- a figure likely to dwarf the efforts of opponents.

"We don't have time to wait," said Martin, who said the decade-long fight to increase funding has left money for clean water initiatives in particular at "historic lows."

In a sign of how heated the rhetoric may get, former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams said Minnesota's affluent arts patrons had cleverly joined with outdoors supporters to forge a formidable partnership.

"The arts crowd, you know, the liberal representatives from the Twin Cities ... [have] put their arms" around the outdoors groups and become "pals," he said. A statement from the Vote No campaign, referring to the arts component, called the amendment an attempt to fund "lifestyles of the rich and famous."

A second thrust of the strategy, highlighted by the group's first radio ads unveiled recently, reminds Minnesotans that the sales tax increase would come as taxpayers are already reeling from high gas prices and a teetering economy.

"We got poor Minnesotans out there that just say, 'I can't afford another $50 or $100 a year for the liberal elite to play with,'" said Grams, who has taken a leading role in opposing the amendment.

Under the proposal, 33 percent of the money collected through the sales tax increase would go to clean water projects; 33 percent would go to game, fish and wildlife habitat projects; 19.75 percent would go to arts and culture; and 14.25 percent would go to parks and trails.

The state Department of Revenue estimates that the amendment would cost an average Minnesota household $60 a year.

Double-barrelled problems

Both sides face ticklish political problems.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whose support is being sought by both opponents and supporters, is not taking a position -- a move that has particularly incensed opponents.

"Where in the hell is the governor?" Gram asked.

Speaking for the Vote Yes campaign, Martin said organizers have had "really good conversations" with the governor but confessed that "we'd love for him to say something more."

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said that is unlikely. "As everyone should know by now, the governor doesn't like tax increases," he said. "But he respects the opportunity for voters to express their own views through the ballot process."

Though opponents have gained the support of the 30,000-member Minnesota Farm Bureau, there has not been a long list of groups publicly supporting the Vote No campaign.

In one awkward moment last week, the Taxpayers League of Minnesota president Phil Krinkie said he had tried and failed to get the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce -- which opposes the amendment -- to attend a media event to unveil the campaign's radio ad campaign.

The amendment's opponents also must confront the reality that many voters who might otherwise oppose tax increases, in this case hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts, are backing the proposal. "I think it'll pass," said Chuck Delaney, who hosts the popular Anoka Game Fair each summer. "This is all outdoor people, so it's all 'pro,'" he said.

But the problems for the Vote Yes campaign are also vexing.

Making sure Minnesotans know that leaving the amendment ballot box blank translates into a "no" vote, supporters concede, has become critical. Adding to the problem, they said, is that expected record turnout at the polls will almost certainly lead to a significantly higher number of voters not voting on the amendment.

Another challenge facing supporters is that several key political figures are opposed on principle, arguing that the amendment circumvents the Legislature's traditional role of dispensing state funds. One civic group, which includes former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser and retired state Supreme Court Chief Judge Sandy Keith, said that "it's not the job of voters to use the constitution to carve up the state's revenues."

Kevin Smith, the president of the Minnesota Opera, which is seeking to augment the $234,550 in government grants the organization received in 2007, said such arguments miss the point. "We serve the state," he said. "We go around the state, we go into the schools."

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388