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Joined 03/27/2006

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Daily Subscription Msg 1 Posted: 10:31 AM 06/19/06 (CST)
Dead-icated funding: Senate pulls the plug

Wednesday, June 14, 2006 12:31 PM EDT

A week after holding a similar “mini-rally” at the state Republican Convention in Minneapolis, sportsmen sounded off outside the state Democratic Convention in Rochester last Saturday.
By Joe Albert Staff Writer

St. Paul - Dedicated funding officially died for the year last Thursday, when Senate DFLers opted not to return to the table to negotiate.

Instead, a letter delivered by Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, informed House negotiators the Senate wouldn't be offering a counter-proposal, dashing hope for a special session to deal with dedicated funding might be called.

'When it comes to Minnesota's habitat and natural resource needs, a clear win was snatched from the jaws of victory by election-year politics,' said John Schroers, Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance president.

The Senate move came two days after House Republicans offered a proposal that would have raised taxes by 1/8 of one percent for clean water and fish and wildlife habitat.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who has carried the dedicated funding bill for years, questioned the Senate's desire to pass such a bill.

'The bottom line is they just didn't want it on the ballot,' he said in reference to a belief that DFLers don't want an initiative on the ballot that might bring out conservative voters.

In his letter (Page 6), Johnson didn't indicate that was the case, but instead said the money the House was proposing to dedicate wasn't enough. He also said there wasn't enough time to pass the bill in the Legislature and carry out a public relations effort to ensure its passage.

Dedicated funding will be a priority for the Senate in 2007, Johnson said. (When the bill died in a Senate committee in 2005, Johnson said at the time it was because the Senate deals with constitutional questions only in even-numbered years.)

'Failure to pass an amendment is a temporary setback,' he said. 'Passing an amendment that doesn't accomplish our goal is a permanent failure.'

The Senate got the jump on the House in passing a dedicated funding bill, approving one in early April. That bill sought to increase by 3/8 of one percent the state sales tax and divide the revenue between fish and game habitat, clean water, parks and trails, and the arts.

The House passed a bill in late April to dedicate 3/16 of one percent of existing sales tax to the same causes, albeit at different levels.

After saying for months the House wouldn't support a tax increase, Hackbarth proposed an approach that would have accomplished a dedication with both a tax-rate bump and from existing money. When the Senate didn't accept that during the regular session, Hackbarth and other House leaders offered the proposal that would have relied on a tax increase.

'I think they were surprised by every move we made,' he said. 'I was negotiating against myself. I felt like a fool, but I didn't want the issue to die.'

During conference committee hearings, Hackbarth and others criticized the Senate for being slow, or even willing to, bring forward counter-offers. Johnson said in his letter the Senate still believes its version of the bill is best.

In the end, observers were surprised the Senate didn't offer a counter-proposal to the House.

Gary Botzek, a lobbyist for multiple environmental and conservation groups, figured the Senate would meet the House halfway in its final offer and seek to raise the sales tax by 1/4 of one percent.

Dave Zentner, co-coordinator of the Duck Rally, was upbeat after the House's 'bold' move of offering the tax increase on Tuesday, and disappointed by the Senate's lack of a response.

'To simply not even honor what I thought was a good-faith proposal was amazing to me,' he said. '(I was) absolutely amazed.'

Hackbarth and House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, questioned the Senate's leadership. Rather than responding quickly to the House offer last week, the Senate asked for 48 hours.

Hackbarth said he blamed neither Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples, who carried the dedicated funding bill in the Senate, nor Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, who was on the conference committee, for its demise.

'They're wonderful people; they wanted to get this done,' he said. 'The stumbling block was leadership,' and it extended beyond Johnson.

Down the line

It seems clear that dedicated funding will be at the forefront again next session, but it's not clear what it will look like.

Hackbarth said he would bring a bill forward, but that it would be different from past versions.

Botzek also said different versions - including those that don't rely on a constitutional amendment - may be introduced in the future. Groups such as the Campaign for Conservation or Envision Minnesota could be the driving forces behind those.

The Duck Rally coalition plans to meet in coming weeks to talk about which direction to go, Zentner said.

'Is dedicated funding by a constitutional amendment the way to go?' he said. 'The answer might be yes, but we're going to re-examine it.'

Either way, the rally coalition will be back next year, and it needs the continued help of those who've supported it, Zentner said.

'We haven't given up and hope they won't,' he said.
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