Capitol Views: Constitutional amendment for fish and wildlife may never get through Legislature

It conjures images of bubbling brooks, slapping trout, strings of geese bisecting languishing sunsets.

And it may never get through the Minnesota Legislature.

by T.W. Budig
ECM capitol reporter

It conjures images of bubbling brooks, slapping trout, strings of geese bisecting languishing sunsets.

And it may never get through the Minnesota Legislature.

Former Senate majority leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, isn’t willing to bet his pastor’s pay that it does, he quipped.

Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, questions whether
anything will happen this session with the proposed constitutional
amendment for fish and wildlife – and clean water, parks and trails,
cultural heritage, and don’t forget the arts.

Just last week, a dedication bill crashed in the Senate.

On paper the so-called “fraction bill” is simple enough.

Three-eighths of a percent increase

Once approved by voters and enshrined in the state constitution, the
current dedication would increase the state sales tax by three-eighths
a percent and sprinkle about $280 million a year among the semi-arid
funding areas.

Over the years the fractions have varied.

Indeed, a tenderfoot might wander into a committee hearing and suppose they’ve entered a woodworkers’ convention.

It doesn’t take a depth-finder to appreciate that some of the antics surrounding the legislation are a little fishy.

In the past it has been plastered with amendments.

One lawmaker with a sardonic sense of humor once amended a same-sex marriage ban amendment onto a fraction bill.

The results prohibited same-sex marriage in bass boats, perhaps.

Seriously, some lawmakers just believe placing funding dedications in the state constitution is bad policy.

Johnson, for one, has concluded it’s “simply a bad idea.”

It binds the hands of future legislatures. Anyway, with that approach, what the heck are lawmakers for?, purists ask.

Other dilemmas

And there are other dilemmas: should existing sales tax be dedicated, or should the sales tax be raised a fraction?

What funding areas should be included?

Is inclusion of the arts, for instance, necessary for broadening support to get the initiative through the Legislature?

And how will placing an amendment on the ballot impact the election?

Who will it draw to the polls? Republicans or Democrats?

Sviggum foresees the draw as politically neutral. But in the frenzy of an election cycle, are lawmakers willing to take a risk?

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, knows the valley floor supporters of the fraction bill often travel.

Last session as lead House Republican conferee on the legislation
Hackbarth exclaimed he’d be willing to throw himself on his sword to
get the dedication passed.

Fortunately for the representative’s wardrobe, it didn’t come to that.

A disciple of “clean” dedication

Hackbarth is a disciple of the “clean” dedication: existing sales tax
dollars, a modest slice, for fish and wildlife and habitat.

Keep the cultural stuff out. Or have a second amendment for it, he
argued. “I don’t blame Senator (Bob) Lessard for doing that,” said
Hackbarth of broadening the dedication areas. “He wanted to get the
bill passed,” Hackbarth said.

Almost a decade ago, Lessard, a fishing guide from International Falls,
was inspired by a Missouri outdoor dedication and began the drumbeat
for one in Minnesota. He sometimes is seen at hearings, now slumped in
a chair.

Hackbarth believes by “piling on” funding areas, opponents hope to kill the initiative.

Or worse, they want to get a bloated amendment on the ballot where it
will certainly fail. Then forever after, whenever the idea comes up,
they can sigh and say it was tried.

Hackbarth views the education lobby as studiously working against the fraction bill out of fear of losing education dollars.

Sviggum thinks many special interests, not just the education lobby,
oppose fraction bills. “They’re more the big dog in the pond,” he said.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, objects to fraction bills from a policy standpoint.

And he sees a pitfall that awaits those bringing initiatives to the
Capitol – awaited the fraction bill crowd. “Once you bring an idea to
the Legislature, it doesn’t belong to you anymore,” said Abeler.
“That’s a little caveat,” he said.

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