Clean water; don’t mess up the Constitution

Published 8:47 am Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ask most Minnesotans and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone opposed to protecting the state’s natural resources. Clean lakes and rivers, quality parks and trails, abundant hunting and fishing – all are important ingredients to Minnesotans’ quality of life.

All are equally vital to the state’s economy.

But much more is behind the buzzwords of the “Vote Yes” campaign to raise taxes to “clean up our drinking water” than meets the eyes of casual voters. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors voted unanimously to oppose the ballot question Nov. 4. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce represents 2,400 businesses across Minnesota — 40 percent in Greater Minnesota and 80 percent with fewer than 100 employees.

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The proposed constitutional amendment — broad-based in its intended beneficiaries — might be clever political strategy, but it’s poor public policy. Let me explain.

Amendment passage would raise the state’s sales tax rate by three-eighths cent for at least 25 years to clean up the water — and much more. Of the overall proceeds, for FY 2010, $80.6 million would go to clean up water, another $80.6 million would be for wildlife habitat, $48.2 million for arts and cultural resources, and $34.8 million for parks and trails.

Cleaning up impaired waters is a priority of the statewide business community, and that cost is estimated to be between $85 million and $100 million a year. Minnesotans, however, are being asked to increase taxes by three times that much — nearly $245 million per year — to fund additional wish lists of parks and trails, arts and cultural projects.

Voters are being asked to change the Constitution — make public policy decisions — based on 30-second commercials filled with sound bites and no explanation of the long-lasting implications.

Overall, the tax increase would be more than $11 billion over 25 years. Those numbers represent big-time money and big-time spending decisions that normally are debated by the legislators we elect to take those votes. The amendment offers little opportunity for public debate and no chance for compromise. Voters only can vote “yes” or “no” on a single proposal.

Legislators placed the amendment on the ballot in the guise of giving voters a voice. In reality, they simply have passed the buck on taking a stance and have hampered future lawmakers in their ability to weigh spending needs against the available money. The amendment states that the dedicated proceeds must supplement – not substitute – this is in addition to traditional sources of funding for the affected programs.

Legislators had viable alternatives to raise money to clean up our water. The Minnesota Chamber, as part of a broad-based coalition, stepped to the plate four years ago to recommend a water fee to finance water cleanup. We still believe the plan is feasible. In addition, funding could come from the Environmental Trust Fund.

The “Vote Yes” proposal for higher taxes on Minnesotans could not come at a worse time. The state faces an anticipated general fund shortfall exceeding $1 billion for 2010-11 and could exceed $2 billion if inflation is counted. And everyone’s pockets are being pinched by the national economic crisis.

Minnesota businesses are especially sensitive to raising the sales tax. Businesses pay 45 percent of all sales tax revenue. The constitutional amendment would increase business taxes by about $110 million in FY 2010 and even more in future years as sales tax revenue increases. The last thing businesses want is to pay the state more taxes rather than investing that amount in their employees and operations.

As voters go to the polls, they should ask: Is Minnesota getting to be more like Washington where you have to add all sorts of unrelated stuff to bills to get them passed? Let’s reject that thinking and, in doing so, tell the Legislature to pass a plan to clean up the lakes and rivers that is right sized — $85 million to $100 million per year, fiscally responsible and sound public policy.

Ginny Morris is president of Hubbard Radio and chairwoman of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.