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Forests fit into tax hike plan

ST. PAUL - Minnesota forests could get a piece of the pie if legislators and voters approve raising sales taxes to fund outdoors and arts programs.

A Senate committee on Wednesday decided to spend an estimated $25 million annually to buy or obtain easements on Northland forest land that private companies are ready to sell. It is the first time in the decade the tax proposal has been around the Capitol that forests were specifically included.

However, the proposal has a long way to go. It passed its first Senate committee Wednesday - on a voice vote with some dissenters - and has yet to begin its trek through House committees.

"I think this is going to hibernate for awhile," Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, said, adding that other finance bills will begin to take up committee time and the issue will surface again later in the spring.

The forest funding was the only change made Wednesday to a bill presented by Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, to raise the state sales tax 0.375 percent. State fiscal experts estimate the tax would add $100 a year to purchases made by a family of four with a $75,000 income.

The issue began 10 years ago as a way to increase funding for outdoors programs such as hunting and fishing. Over the years, other interest groups tried to get part of the new revenues. Many outdoors supporters this year decided they would only get the money if they allowed the arts community to share the estimated $300 million-a-year to be gained by the higher tax.

If legislators pass the proposal, it would go on the November 2008 ballot for a voters' decision about whether the state Constitution should be amended to accommodate the new tax.

Pogemiller said he thinks outdoor projects, cleaning up the state's water and arts programs need equal portions of the new money.

While the measure passed its first test, senators suggested several tweaks. For instance, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said the tax should be raised 0.5 percent so it is an even number, and easier for businesses to collect.

Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, said arts programs are not as important as outdoors issues, so should not be included in the amendment. However, Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, argued that even hunters and anglers like the arts in rural Minnesota, and state support is needed to keep them going.

Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, said legislators should just spend the money through their normal budget process instead of amending the Constitution. Pogemiller agreed in theory, but said he doesn't want the important outdoors and arts issues to be left behind.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, did not like the bill because it would raise the sales tax. He said voters told him they did not want to pay more.

Raising the tax and including the arts could doom the proposal when voters have their say, he added. "We may fail because it doesn't get voted in."

If that happens, Ingebrigtsen added, "I'm just afraid we will be letting our environment down."

Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, said he likes the bill as is.

"Most of the people I represent like to hunt and fish," Vickerman said. "They also like the arts."

Saxhaug said he is confident the forest money will remain in the bill.

"Large tracts of forest land are being fragmented or sold off," Saxhaug said.

To preserve forests, he said, it is important for the state to buy land or at least purchase easements so public access will continue.

Saxhaug likes to repeat a story often told by Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, who complains that hunters from his district used to always go to the Northland to hunt. However, last year when they arrived, the land had been sold and it was posted as a no-hunting area.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.