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Ballot measure's merits debated

DULUTH - Voters who support a Nov. 4 ballot measure either will be mucking up the Minnesota Constitution or pledging to pay for cleaner water and neglected outdoors and arts causes.

"It comes down to this is bad constitutional law, this is bad legislative law and this is bad tax policy," former Republican lawmaker Linda Runbeck said of a proposed constitutional amendment dedicating a tax increase to the outdoors and arts.

Larry Redmond's view is different. The arts advocate said Minnesota is letting the quality of its water deteriorate and its natural and cultural resources also may be in jeopardy because of insufficient state funding.

"I'm voting yes because I owe something to the future," Redmond said of the ballot measure. "It's time to take care of this right now."

Those arguments came as amendment supporters and opponents debated its merits Saturday at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Forum Communications Company and the university's Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership program sponsored the debate.

Voters next month will be asked whether to raise the state sales tax 0.375 percent for 25 years to fund conservation, parks, water and arts programs. The average Minnesota household would pay about $5 more per month in sales tax if the amendment passes. Supporters want to make sure the voters know about the amendment because leaving the ballot question blank will count as a 'no' vote.

The increased funding - estimated at roughly $273 million a year - is needed, particularly for water and other outdoors causes that have been overlooked in recent decades, Dave Zentner of Duluth said.

Zentner, former national president of the Isaak Walton League, and Redmond said 40 percent of the state's lakes and rivers are contaminated, communities still have sewer problems and the state may not be meeting wetland preservation requirements.

"The people in Minnesota want lakes that are fishable, fish that they can eat if they catch them and every citizen in this state needs safe, clean drinking water," said Zentner, who advocated for the ballot measure throughout the decade lawmakers spent debating whether to put it before voters.

Not only is it bad policy, but the tax increase would come on top of any local sales taxes and would hurt Minnesota because its neighboring states have smaller sales tax rates, said Carrie Ruud, a former Breezy Point-area Republican state senator representing the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

"We're going to make it hard for our border communities to survive," said Ruud, adding that opposing the amendment does not mean people are against funding those causes.

Amendment proponents and opponents agree many voters are not aware of the ballot measure, but they questioned each other's positions. Zentner said opponents are inflating tax revenue estimates, and Ruud said supporters intentionally are not promoting the arts as a recipient of the dedicated funds.

"If it's such a big part of this amendment and it's so important, why is it not part of the brochures and part of the ad campaign?" Ruud asked.

Runbeck said the proposal would be easier to support if the arts were not included. However, she added, the constitution should not be amended to include "a piece of legislation" that does not deal directly with people's rights or governing of the state.

Lawmakers included the arts provision because the amendment is about what Minnesotans see as important to their quality of life, said Redmond, a lobbyist representing Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

More than $500 million in tax revenue already is spent annually on the outdoors, said Runbeck, an amendment opponent and former Circle Pines-area state senator now with the American Property Coalition. The amendment would direct upwards of $300 million a year to specific causes and without typical legislative scrutiny, she said.

"Think about the precedent that is set if it passes," she said.

There is plenty of precedent for changing the constitution. Redmond said voters have approved 119 amendments in the state's 150 years, and several dealt specifically with funding.

Zentner said Minnesotans have a tradition of standing together to protect water and other natural resources.

"This is about community," he said. "This is about each of us with a modest sacrifice getting Minnesota back on track."