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Minnesota voters to decide where state sales tax goes

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Minnesota voters will now take control of a decade-old proposal to send a portion of state sales tax to outdoors, environment and arts programs now that Minnesota legislators approved it.

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After 10 years of failures, lawmakers Thursday easily passed a constitutional amendment to increase sales taxes 0.375 percent, to be spent on a range of outdoor programs - improving wetlands, cleaning the state's water, funding parks and trails and other things - and arts and history programs.

It was a day many Minnesotans waited to see for a long time.

Count Dave Zentner, Duluth conservationist and former president of the national Izaak Walton League of America, among those.

"It's chills and tears," Zentner said.

"I'm excited. I'm happy. We'll have a short celebration, then we'll get the whole conservation community together, and that's how we'll get the whole citizens' community together. After November, then our generation will have really left a gift for generations to come."

The proposal bypasses the governor and goes directly to voters in the Nov. 4 general election. A multimillion-dollar campaign to support the amendment is expected.

The House approved the measure 85-46, followed by the Senate 46-17.

The votes culminate an effort that began more than 10 years ago by then-Sen. Bob Lessard, who wanted to keep funds flowing to outdoors programs. The idea lacked support from urban lawmakers, so the arts provision was included in recent years, giving the measure critical mass needed to pass the Legislature.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said $244 million would be raised by the amendment in 2010, and it should rise slightly after that.

The biggest complaint about the amendment is that it dedicates funding via the constitution, and opponents would prefer the Legislature make funding decisions year to year.

"Are we so hungry for new revenue ... that we are willing to compromise our core beliefs on fair taxation?" asked Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. "I'm just not willing to do that today."

Bakk, Senate Taxes Committee chairman, said sales tax increases hurt the poor more than others.

The amendment, if approved by voters Nov. 4, would increase the sales tax for 25 years before it expires.

Estimates of what the average Minnesota family would pay vary, but supporters say it probably would cost $56 a year.

A coalition of arts, outdoors and environmental groups plan to launch a campaign next month.

Lessard said he is optimistic the amendment will pass, but said it will be tough getting the word out about why his outdoors friends need to support the arts, parks and other items not in the original bill 10 years ago.

"Now, the real work starts," Sertich said.

Supporters say outdoors and arts issues are so important to Minnesotans that they will support the amendment because about 1 million fishing licenses are sold annually and about half that many deer hunting licenses, and 60 percent of Minnesotans are involved in arts programs ranging from choir to woodworking to acting.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said a border city lawmaker such as him could not vote for raising the sales tax when Moorhead competes against North Dakota's tax.

"I don't want to take a step backward and take us out of competition," he said.

One-third of proceeds from the raised sales tax will go to programs cleaning the state water.

Another third would restore, protect and improve wetlands, prairies and forests.

Parks and trails would receive 14.25 percent of proceeds and arts and history programs would get 19.75 percent.

How they voted

Here is a list of how area lawmakers voted on the proposed constitutional amendment dedicating a sales tax increase to the outdoors and arts programs:

Representatives

-- Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, no.

-- Larry Howes, R-Walker, yes.

-- Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, no.

-- Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, yes.

-- Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, yes

-- Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, yes.

-- Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, yes.

-- Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, yes.

-- Dave Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls, yes.

-- Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, no.

-- Dean Simpson, R-Perham, yes

Senators

--Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, no.

-- Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, yes.

(Sam Cook of the Duluth News Tribune contributed to this report)

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