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Fishing for a funding source

ST. PAUL - From tapping state lottery revenues to assessing sewer service fees, lawmakers are fishing for a palatable way to pay for the cleanup of polluted Minnesota water.

ST. PAUL - From tapping state lottery revenues to assessing sewer service fees, lawmakers are fishing for a palatable way to pay for the cleanup of polluted Minnesota water.

The proposed Clean Water Legacy Act would identify polluted surface waters and establish cleanup plans. Both Republican and DFL lawmakers support the initiative but have not found a favorable way to fund it.

Bill sponsor Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, originally proposed assessing fees on private septic and sewer system owners. Homeowners would pay $36 a year while businesses would pay more. The so-called "toilet tax," which would appear on property tax statements, was deemed unfavorable.

The House Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday heard testimony on several alternative funding sources. Ozment, who is chairman of the committee, suggested the state assess fees on all property with structures such as houses, factories or barns. That could generate nearly $80 million each year.

Another proposal includes a fee on deed and mortgage transfers, which could produce $25 million annually.

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"Anything going on the property tax is going to be problematic, including any fee," said Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, who serves on the committee. Nevertheless, he said he likes the one-time deed fee as a way to pay for assessments, but more money will be needed.

"I have concerns about how it affects property taxes," added committee member Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City.

The deed fee has other flaws, Ozment said. Another House committee has already included that increased revenue in its finance bill.

Other lawmakers have proposed capturing more state lottery revenue or dedicating a portion of the state sales tax for water cleanup. That would require a constitutional amendment, but money wouldn't show up until 2008 at the earliest, Ozment said.

"I don't have a magic bullet," he admitted.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, offered a different way to pay for water cleanup. The Moorhead Republican proposed allowing watershed districts to levy property owners to generate revenue. That money would be directed to a watershed's general fund and used only for assessment and cleanup.

"This is not a mandate; it's an option," Lanning told the committee.

The state has short- and long-term funding needs, Ozment said. It has to start making assessments, but it also will have to pay for cleanup efforts years from now.

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Ozment's committee will continue looking at funding alternatives next week.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said Thursday that the clean water bill will be heard in a finance committee next week. The Senate version has up to four funding proposals, but none of them have enough support to pass on a floor vote, Johnson said.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, has said he is not optimistic the Legislature will pass a water bill this session.

Wente is a reporter for the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican-Eagle, a Forum Communications newspaper

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