Outdoors issues up in air

ST. PAUL -- It seems like there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to outdoors issues. Minnesota lawmakers long have debated whether to dedicate part of the state sales tax to natural resources needs. Likewise, every year they discuss how...

ST. PAUL -- It seems like there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to outdoors issues.

Minnesota lawmakers long have debated whether to dedicate part of the state sales tax to natural resources needs. Likewise, every year they discuss how much to restrict all-terrain vehicles and four-wheel drive trucks on state land.

Both topics will be on their agenda again in 2007.

With Democrats in charge of both houses of the Legislature, there is likely to be more agreement than during the past eight years when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats held the Senate.

"This Legislature probably is the most environmentally friendly Legislature we have had in decades," said former GOP lawmaker John Tuma of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.


"Frankly, our natural resources can't wait any longer," Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said.

But they have to wait until lawmakers agree on how to fund needs for outdoors-related interests. The major funding debate probably will center on the sales tax dedication issue.

Then-Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls started efforts in 1998 to dedicate part of the sales tax to the outdoors, things such as improving wildlife habitat. Over the years, however, lawmakers never quite reached agreement.

In recent years, the amount of the proposed tax has moved around; lawmakers debated whether it should be on top of current taxes or taken from them; and what would be funded has changed. In recent years, the arts community has found support to share some of the money, which angered many natural resources advocates.

So for the 10th year, the proposal comes in front of lawmakers.

The Environmental Partnership's proposal, which certainly will not be the only one debated, calls for a quarter percent increase in the sales tax to provide $187 million a year to fund a water cleanup program; to buy and manage forest and other land; and to invest in parks and trails.

Money to test and clean the state's water has become a prime concern in the Capitol. Minnesota and most other states are not meeting requirements of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act and state officials fear being sued over it.

Moe said a clean-water act passed last year "is grossly underfunded and possibly illegal."


About $100 million is needed annually to comply with the federal law, Tuma said.

Sen. Gary Kubly, who will lead a Senate natural resources subcommittee, said he will consider proposals to set aside some tax revenue for outdoors purposes.

"We're certainly going to hear the dedicated funding issue for natural resources," Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, said of constitutionally dedicated money.

Kubly said more outdoors money is critical because funding for natural resources as a percentage of all state allocations is at a 30-year low.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said he expects House Democrats to favor increasing the sales tax instead of the Republican proposal to take it out of the existing revenue.

"We're not going to increase taxes, the voters will," he said.

The proposal would put the issue on voters' ballots in 2008. If they approve it, the sales tax dedication would be part of the state Constitution.

Moe, however, said many Democrats don't like putting the funding requirement in the Constitution. He and others prefer legislative action only.


Sen. Tom Saxhaug, vice chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Budget Division, said water in his northern Minnesota area already is pretty clean and he wonders if it is fair for all Minnesotans to pay a higher sales tax so that western Minnesota gets more duck habitat and the Twin Cities get cleaner water.

"Although I'm concerned about it, we are not in as bad shape as the rest of the state," Saxhaug said.

The new House Environment Policy Committee chairman, Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said clean-water funding will be considered alongside issues such as how to deal with electronic waste and all-terrain vehicles.

Eken said he expects to hold hearings on all-terrain vehicles.

"What would be the best, of course, is try to find some common ground," Eken said the controversial topic. "I think the ATVs do provide an important part of our economy. I think it can be a great opportunity to see the outdoors. But we want to make sure they are being used in a way that is not damaging our environment because in the long run that will damage our economy."

The chairman said he puts the small all-terrain vehicles in a different class than four-wheel-drive pickup trucks, which he said do more damage. But even the big "mudder" pickups are important, especially to the tourism economy, he said.

Saxhaug said he likes what has come out of all-terrain vehicle laws and state rules but favors hearings to hear what others think.

"I think that we have done a good job of managing ATVs in a very difficult situation," Saxhaug said.


-- Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

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