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Arts advocates finally get their Valentine, sort of

For Minnesota’s outdoors and arts advocates, this Valentine’s Day should be particularly sweet. Feb. 14 will forever mark the birth of candy hearts that look like sidewalk chalk and, if all goes as planned at the Legislature on Thursday, the passage of a bill that seeks to dedicate funds to wildlife habitats, conservation, parks and trails, clean water and the arts.

The Great Outdoors Heritage Amendment — also known as the Dallas Sams Outdoor and Cultural Legacy Act — proposes adding 0.38 percent to the current Minnesota sales tax. (That’s about 3 cents for every $10 spent.) Eighty percent of the approximately $291 million generated per year will go to the environment, while 19.75 percent will go toward preserving and promoting the state’s arts and culture heritage.

The bill has been nearly a decade in the making, and more than 600 arts advocates plan to celebrate it finally crossing the finish line with a big ol’ Valentine to the Minnesota Legislature on Thursday at the Capitol.

Even so, the race isn’t exactly over. Though the bill passed the House and Senate by a wide margin last year and is expected to win final passage on Thursday, the constitutional amendment still must be approved by voters in November. (Amendments don’t have to face the governor’s veto pen.) Thursday’s passage just supplies approval of the language to be placed on the ballot. So, how do we get off the racetrack?

Let’s play ball…
Republican and Democratic opponents of the bill have long objected to a constitutional amendment calling for a sales tax increase. Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield, for example, says on his website that, “the State has a fiduciary duty to preserve its natural resources. The same cannot be said for arts funding.”

Interestingly, Neuville made an exception when he voted for the $1.1 billion Twins stadium tax that was never brought before voters. That tax was 0.15 percent, or 3 cents per $20.

Yet Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, whose group is one of many that have fought tirelessly to get the bill passed, says constitutional amendments for taxes, finances and economic development are so common that it seemed the easiest route. 

“People forget that Minnesotans have very often amended their constitution to accomplish certain goals maybe the legislation hasn’t accomplished,” she says. “Since we began as a state 150 years ago, Minnesotans have amended the constitution 119 times.”

In fact, last year, the constitution was amended to deal with transportation issues. “And I think the reason that passed was because people felt there wasn’t enough being done on transportation, and the spirit behind this amendment is very similar,” Smith says.

Minnesota Environmental Action Network, Great Outdoors Minnesota and Clean Water Action, just to name a few, worked to put a passable bill before the House and Senate.

In previous years, there was back-and-forth about whether the bill should dedicate current money that would come at the expense of other state funding priorities. The fear was that money would be shifted out of education, for example, so the bill has since been reworked to exist on its own.

And unlike the stadium tax on Hennepin County residents, the bill is up for voter approval, which means the organizations plan to kick off a voting campaign in March.

“This is addressing the issue the Legislature has not managed to address,” Smith says of the amendment. “And that is to protect our lakes and our land and our way of life. These are the things that make Minnesota, Minnesota. They’re all important to our tourist industry; they’re the reason we live here. We value our outdoors and cultural resources.”

So come November, along with the end to one of the most intriguing election years in history, you’ll get a ballot with this question:

“Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate funding to protect our drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve our arts and cultural heritage; to support our parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore our lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater by increasing the sales and use tax rate beginning July 1, 2009, by three-eighths of one percent on taxable sales until the year 2034?”

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