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Governor race gives outdoors tax plan a push

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators' efforts failed to increase natural resources funding, but vote-seeking gubernatorial candidates have changed the prospects.

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators' efforts failed to increase natural resources funding, but vote-seeking gubernatorial candidates have changed the prospects.

A bill languishing in the Legislature received new life when all major candidates for governor -- both Democrats and Republicans -- agreed to support a proposal to dedicate 3/16th percent of the state sales tax to natural resources. The dedication would raise more than $100 million a year for programs ranging from hunting and fishing to parks and trails.

"The dynamics of this issue have changed so dramatically over the past couple of days," Rep. Mark Holsten, R-Stillwater, said Thursday in announcing a renewed effort to pass the proposed constitutional amendment.

"It's gubernatorial politics (that) has breathed new life into this," Holsten added.

Some governor candidates -- Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, in particular -- had withheld support for the measure. But on Thursday, Moe and Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna, signed onto the bill.

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Holsten said the bill he and Sen. Bob Lessard, an International Falls Independence Party member sponsored, gained newfound support for one reason: "Votes, I'm guessing."

With the new support, Holsten, Lessard and outdoors groups decided now is the time to push for passage.

Many of the 20 lawmakers surrounding the bill's sponsors Thursday predicted it would pass this session.

Sen. Cal Larson, R-Fergus Falls, went further. Larson predicted it not only will pass the Legislature, but 60 percent of Minnesota voters will approve it Nov. 5.

If the public passes the measure as Larson predicts, 57 percent of the money would go to fish, game and wildlife projects; 20 percent to parks and trails around the state; 20 percent to Twin Cities' parks and trails; and 3 percent to other trail grants. Funds would begin to flow in 2005.

Supporters said the proposal will pass despite state budget problems. Lawmakers came into this year facing a $2 billion deficit; they balanced most of the budget, but have $439 million left.

"Every dollar that is going into this is going to improve the quality of life in Minnesota," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said.

"Hunting, fishing and recreation has always been a way of life in rural Minnesota," he said.

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"People want their environment," added Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy.

Marquart said he expects representatives, especially members of his own DFL party, to complain that the sales tax dedication would take money away from education and health and human services programs. But the freshman lawmaker said those programs "always are top priorities" and should not be affected.

Holsten said money collected from the sales tax should not replace existing funding for environmental programs.

Larson predicted that if the Legislature puts the issue on the November ballot, "it will bring out a lot of people who haven't voted in years."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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