Proposed amendment might mean funds for environment

Advocates maintain that the arts improve the “quality of life” in Minnesota.

by Courtney Blanchard

It’s hard to compete against sick kids and keeping the bars on prisons.

A proposed constitutional amendment could make that competition unnecessary for certain cultural and environmental programs with dedicated funding from sales tax.

Similar to the transportation amendment passed last year, the measure would, in theory, send money directly to certain programs without legislative bartering.

For now, bartering is a big part of the amendment’s development. There’s tension between conservation and arts advocates about who should be included in the measure.

Many outdoors groups argue that they started the push for funding, and, unlike last year’s transportation amendment, the measure should be kept simple.

Arts advocates say the amendment should be about maintaining a “quality of life” in Minnesota, a standard which includes the arts.

“What’s become clear is that both these areas tend to get the short end of the deal in the Legislature,” Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said.

Cohen, chairman of the Finance Committee, said the movement to dedicate sales tax to environmental groups recently gained momentum after recent polling among eligible voters showed including the arts increased the popularity of the measure.

Cohen said an amendment is needed to dedicate funding to such areas because they’re often overshadowed by things like education, safety and prisons.

“In terms of the Finance Committee, you never have enough money anywhere,” he said.

John Schroers, the past president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, has been involved with the issue for 10 years.

What started out as a bill to protect habitats grew to include parks, trails, zoos, clean water and, eventually, the arts.

“Amendments become kind of a Christmas tree,” he said.

Schroers said he’s worried the amendment could get too complicated and could be unpopular among voters if too many parties get involved.

“The people of this state are smart; they’ll spend the money to do what’s right for our natural resources and our water,” he said. “But I think they’ll only go so far. I mean, they are paying a tax, after all.”

Carolyn Bye, director of the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, said the arts community has the energy and political savvy to get the measure passed.

Bye said some outdoors groups responded negatively to the inclusion of the arts and claim they stepped in too late and will only hurt chances of the measure passing among the voters.

Bye, however, said it’s a quality of life issue.

“I look at this regardless of who started it and who finished it,” she said.

Recent testimony before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee would suggest that many left the hostility behind for the “spirit of working together,” Bye said.

“We need each other,” she said. “The potential for this to pass is twice as much when all good thinkers and advocates are here from all communities.”

Chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Satveer S. Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, said both sides have compelling arguments and he would support a sales tax increase to fund arts and the environment.

However, Chaudhary said he’s reluctant to agree that the two should be lumped together in the same amendment, even though funding the arts is a “quality of life issue.”

“I personally think that the environment is not a quality of life issue; it’s a necessity of life issue,” Chaudhary said.

The committee will remain open to all viewpoints, he said, because with more than five versions of the amendment, legislators will have to take everything into consideration to narrow it down to one.

If passed by the Legislature, the proposed constitutional amendment would be included in the next general election and require a supermajority (60 percent or more) to pass.