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Plan would let counties raise sales tax

House tax chairmen want to avoid increase in property taxes...

Rep. Paul Marquart
Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth on Monday announces a proposal to allow counties to collect a sales tax instead of raising property taxes. Don Davis / State Capitol Bureau

House tax chairmen want to avoid increase in property taxes

ST. PAUL - Minnesota counties should be able to raise the sales tax instead of property taxes to make up for state aid cuts, the two state House tax chairmen say.

"It provides options, flexibility to counties," said Rep. Paul Marquart, House property and local option sales tax chairman and a Dilworth Democrat.

The bill proposed Monday by Marquart and House Tax Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, would give county commissioners authority to raise sales taxes within their county by a half-percent, with about half of the collections required to be used to reduce property taxes.

Each county would be given permission to raise taxes a half-cent per $1 of sales, although 300 voters - in some cases even fewer - could petition that a countywide vote be held about whether the tax would be imposed.

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The advantage of allowing the sales tax to increase, rather than property taxes, is that Minnesotans have an option not to buy things, but if they own property they must pay property taxes, Marquart said.

The plan would save the state $100 million in reduced state aid to counties and provide counties more money than now available through state aid alone.

Except for Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis, the new county half-cent tax would not be added to existing local sales taxes in 23 cities. In those three cities, however, any county taxes would be on top of what already is charged.

"They have extra needs," Marquart said about why those three cities would be able to collect their own taxes.

In the other 20 communities with sales existing taxes, counties would be required to collect funding for them out of their half-cent increase until their sales taxes expire. After city sales taxes authorities end, all of the new money would go to county government.

Lenczewski said that while the bill does not require counties to accept the sales-tax plan, she thinks most will see it as a better deal than raising property taxes.

With introduction of the bill, Marquart and Lenczewski said they have no plans to add a sales tax to clothing, food or other items that are now exempt.

The state sales tax stands at 6.5 percent, but higher rates are charged in the 23 cities with their own sales taxes. Hennepin County's tax rate tops 8 percent, which includes a tax for a new Minnesota Twins ballpark.

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Marquart estimates that 1,500 local government jobs could be saved if his bill passes.

Republicans are not thrilled with the proposal.

"Rep. Marquart's property-sales tax plan lacks simplicity, transparency and accountability," said Brian McClung, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman. "It also seems DFLers have a split personality - they keep saying the tax system should be more progressive while they propose more and more sales tax increases."

Sales and property taxes both are considered regressive because they affect the poor more than they do the rich. Income taxes generally are considered more progressive because they tax more on the ability to pay.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said the plan only tells people that counties are taking money out of one pocket instead of the other.

With other recent sales tax increases, this bill would convince many Minnesotans to shop in other states, Seifert said. Seventy percent of Minnesotans live within an hour's drive of another state, and those buying big-ticket items would be especially tempted to shop elsewhere.

"At what point is the sales tax getting out of reach?" he asked.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com

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