Natural resources plan advances
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's natural resource funding has fallen 35 percent since 2001, but outdoors enthusiasts see help in a proposal to dedicate part of the state's sales tax to parks, hunting, fishing and related programs.
A proposed state constitutional amendment that would send a quarter of a percent of the state's sales tax -- $170 million a year -- to natural resources passed unanimously in the Senate Natural Resources Finance Committee Thursday.
"All of our parks and trails have been on a slippery slope of budget reductions the past few years," said Judy Erickson of the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota.
The proposal of Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples, if it passes the Senate and House this year, would ask voters to decide the issue in the Nov. 2 general election.
It would send 40 percent of the money raised to game and fish programs, and divide the rest between improving the state's water and programs such as parks and trails.
"This is probably the most important piece of legislation you can pass this session," John Tscholt of the Game and Fish Coalition told senators. "This is the most important tourism bill that ever will be passed."
Tscholt and other witnesses said the bill will especially help rural Minnesota communities attract more visitors to hunt and fish.
The amendment would be retaliation against North Dakota, which restricts out-of-state hunters, because more people would want to hunt and fish in Minnesota, he added.
Dan Larson of the Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus was the only one to oppose the bill.
Larson said his members worry that the $170 million will come from funding they now receive.
Sams said he is concerned about the bill's next stop, the Senate Finance Committee, because he expects other senators to try to amend it to provide more funding for education, health and human services programs that were cut in recent years.
But Finance Committee Chairman William Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said this looks like the year the sales tax dedication will pass.
The politics of the measure bring Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and environmentalists together in support. A similar bill is moving through the House.
The proposal for years called for dedicating 3/16 of a percent of the sales tax to natural resources. But Sams and other supporters upped the dedication slightly to include funds for cleaning the state's waters.
John Tuma of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership said that money would be well spent. He said a study of the state's waters has just begun, but so far 40 percent of areas studied need cleaning.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707