If you're not an attorney, it's generally a wise idea to consult one before publicly questioning the constitutionality of state statutes and practices. This week, that oversight undermined an advocacy group's effort to raise much-needed questions about a pressing Minnesota issue: accountability for the unprecedented millions of state taxpayer dollars flowing to outdoor special-interest groups.
A report released Wednesday was the latest broadside against motorized recreation from the Duluth-based Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation, a group that has long raised the hackles of snowmobile and ATV enthusiasts. The MRR report spotlighted what it called gas tax "diversions" to programs aimed at motorboats, dirt bikes, snowmobiles and ATVs. MRR called the practice unconstitutional, and its executive director, Jeff Brown, called for an end of the funding for motorized recreational programs. "We don't think our state can sustain it,'' Brown said in a July 7 Star Tribune story.
Brown acknowledged to an editorial writer on Wednesday that the group hadn't sought legal expertise before it made its argument on constitutionality. Had the report's authors done so, or had they taken a closer read of the state Constitution, they might have realized there were better ways to raise concerns about taxpayer support of these programs.
Sec. 10, Article 14, of the Minnesota Constitution deals only with motor fuel taxation. Its language is clear: "The Legislature may levy an excise tax on any means or substance used for propelling vehicles on the public highways of this state. ... The proceeds of the tax shall be paid into the highway user tax distribution fund.'' Although Brown argues that the intent was to include "right of ways" -- such as trails -- state laws and practices do not back that up. In essence, the money spent on these programs is considered a refund for taxes that off-road enthusiasts or boaters shouldn't have paid.
The money goes to these targeted programs -- about 3 percent of gas tax revenue ($18.5 million) in 2009 -- because it makes more sense to refund it this way than individually. It's also sensible because programs that enable public access to waterways or maintain trails, for example, boost Minnesota's economy. Snowmobiling tourism alone is estimated to contribute $130.7 million annually to the gross state product.
Brown's group should have concentrated its firepower on accountability; its concerns in that area are valid. A 2003 report from the highly regarded Office of the Legislative Auditor raised troubling questions about the formula for calculating the gas tax "refund" to motorized recreation programs. In particular, the formula for determining snowmobilers' share may be flawed. Legislative leadership is needed in the next session to ensure that the groups' portions are calculated accurately and that the funds are used appropriately. Serious questions remain about oversight.
Another reason to spotlight accountability is the recently passed Legacy Amendment, which is steering unprecedented millions in sales tax revenue to outdoors and arts interests. Quite frankly, these groups should be clamoring for the legislative auditor's seal of approval. That some tried to duck this scrutiny earlier this year suggests they don't want taxpayers to know how the money is spent.
Minnesotans have long benefitted personally and economically from the investments made by previous generations in state lands and waterways. Current generations' willingness to back the Legacy Amendment continues that tradition. Outdoor enthusiasts need to work together -- not at odds -- to ensure that those spending the money live up to these long-held, noble intentions.