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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Excellent Strib Editorial On Nonsensical Tax Policy Coming from the Legislature

Editorial: Leave Constitution out of budget-making
No amendment is needed to give natural resources their due.

Published: April 07, 2006

Editorial: A safe downtown needs to feel safer
After languishing for seven years, a constitutional amendment to set aside sales-tax revenue for natural resources has won floor passage in a Minnesota legislative body, the Senate. A wide array of conservation and sporting groups are gratified by this triumph in behalf of their values.

This page usually shares these values, as well as concerns over state government's almost reflexive willingness, year after year, to shortchange conservation, environmental protection and outdoor recreation programs. Alas, we cannot share in the glee over Monday's vote.

Sequestering tax money for special purposes is a bad idea. So is amending the state's fundamental document of shared purpose to patch over an ordinary problem of governance -- budget-making -- which properly and unavoidably rests with the Legislature.

Even leaving aside such broad principles, the history and particulars of this proposal illustrate most amply why it has no place in the Constitution.

In its original form, the amendment embodied an idea that Minnesota's natural resources (with an emphasis on hunting and fishing) were of such paramount importance that they deserved a special funding flow, untouchable in legislative horse-trading. But even then it was promoted partly as redress for various legislative diversions from an earlier, constitutionally dedicated stream with headwaters in the state lottery.

This year's version, on the Senate side, hitches natural resources to the arts and public broadcasting. An odd marriage, but politically convenient; it helped pull 42 votes behind a sales-tax increase of three-eighths of 1 percent, which would bring in $277 million per year.

The House has considered a few competing versions, which disagree over such details as whether the Minnesota Constitution should raise the sales tax a little or a lot, or simply leave the rate as is but carve out a special share for hunting and fishing. One version would also sequester funding for transportation programs and, what the heck, ban same-sex marriage.

If this sounds like the usual legislative sausage-making, as opposed to the nobler breed of process that ought to underlie constitutional evolution, then your hearing is akin to ours. Which only underlines this key point: If lawmakers wish to raise the sales tax as a way to finance cleaner water, more parks and better public TV, they can do so in the normal course of business.

One chief difference is that they'd have to stand before voters with a tax-hike vote on their records, as opposed to a vote to let the public decide. But that public has voiced strong support for the amendment's aims, various polls show, suggesting that either vote could be a campaign plus.

Another difference is that lawmakers would have to protect the new revenue from raiding in each budget cycle. But that's their job, and might well remain so even if the amendment is adopted. Legislatures can always find ways to reduce, redirect or offset special revenue streams -- a reality that can't be averted by writing a spreadsheet into the Constitution.

There is also an editorial suggesting that the Legislature call the Tobacco "fee increase" a tax rather than risking losing in court.