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Outdoor enthusiasts kick off 'Vote Yes' sales tax campaign

Minnesotans worried about the future of the state's natural resources and its cultural institutions will pay more to protect them, predicted advocates of a constitutional amendment directing new tax revenue to those areas.

Appearing at a picturesque lakeside park southwest of Minneapolis, the Vote Yes Minnesota coalition on Tuesday kicked off its five-month campaign to build support for an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution raising the state sales tax to pay for outdoors initiatives and arts programs.

"This campaign is about restoring Minnesota's heritage," former Gov. Arne Carlson said.

Carlson said raising taxes is not popular and he dislikes constitutionally dedicating funding, but the former Republican governor said both are necessary to preserve natural resources and cultural values for future generations.

Amendment supporters say 40 percent of Minnesota's lakes and streams are polluted, arts programs have not received adequate funding by the Legislature and wildlife habitat is disappearing.

Voters will decide Nov. 4 whether the 6.5 percent state sales tax should be increased by 0.375 percent. The revenue would be split among habitat preservation; water cleanup efforts; park and trail acquisition and improvement; and arts and cultural institutions.

Supporters do not dispute the challenge of convincing voters to raise a tax. But Ken Martin, Vote Yes Minnesota's campaign director, said Minnesotans have shown a willingness to invest in what they think is important.

"This campaign really is about protecting the Minnesota you love," he said.

Martin said he expects his and other pro-amendment groups will spend a total of $3 million to $5 million campaigning for its passage. Vote Yes Minnesota will look to support and donations from the general public as well as from a diverse collection of over 200 organizations, including arts associations, film groups and hunting and conservation groups.

They will have opposition.

The fiscally conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota will campaign against the measure, league President Phil Krinkie said.

Amending the constitution for this purpose would generate more revenue "for the state to squander," he said, and it is bad fiscal policy.

If voters approve the measure, it will mean less transparency in how tax dollars are spent, Krinkie said, because a panel of eight citizens and four legislators will recommend how to spend money generated from the tax increase. Lawmakers already rubber-stamp similar recommendations from a different legislative-citizen group, he said.

"The constitution was never intended to act as an allocation of resources document," Krinkie said.

There already are dedicated state funds for outdoors purposes, said Krinkie, a Republican and former Minnesota House tax chairman. And, he added, revenue collected by the state should go through the normal legislative process.

"Why shouldn't their projects or their interests compete with everything else?" he asked.

The Legislature failed to pass a similar amendment proposal in 2007, but it was among the first measures passed by the House and Senate earlier this year.

Voters last approved a constitutional amendment in 2006, when they decided to dedicate all state tax revenue from new and used vehicle sales to transportation purpose