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MINNESOTA: Groups pitch for dedicated funding

Minnesota's population is projected to grow by 1.2 million people in the next 25 years, which makes the need for enhanced natural resources funding more important than ever.

Minnesota's population is projected to grow by 1.2 million people in the next 25 years, which makes the need for enhanced natural resources funding more important than ever.

That was the message from two conservation leaders, who stopped in Grand Forks on Thursday to promote bills in the Minnesota Legislature that would let voters decide whether to dedicate a tiny portion of the state's sales tax to natural resources and, to a lesser extent, the arts.

Tom Abello of The Nature Conservancy and Justin Fay of the Minnesota Campaign for Conservation visited the Herald on behalf of the Great Outdoors Minnesota committee, a coalition of conservation groups working to promote dedicated funding legislation.

"It's extremely important," Fay said of the measure. "To accommodate Minnesota's population growth will convert 1 million acres of farmland and natural areas to new development in the next 25 years."

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Without dedicated funding, there won't be money to protect the land and water endangered by that development, Fay said.

Separate House and Senate bills each would let voters decide on a ballot measure to increase the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent. While the bills differ in their specifics, the tax increase would raise about $300 million annually, much of it for natural resources.

If legislation passes, voters would decide on the measure in the November 2008 general election.

The Senate bill has the most momentum so far, Fay said. Authored by Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill earmarks 43 percent of the funding for water quality projects, 33 percent for fish and wildlife habitat and 24 percent for the arts.

The House version of the bill, authored by House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, would raise the same amount but would split it into more pots.

The Senate bill already has cleared three committees and only has two to go. The House bill has yet to be heard, and likely will go down to the wire when the Legislature adjourns May 22.

Group lobbyingThe Legislature has debated the concept of dedicated funding for nearly a decade but has failed to pass a bill, despite intense lobbying from conservation groups. This year, prospects are more favorable, Abello and Fay said, in large part because the majority leaders in both the House and Senate sponsored the legislation.

"All indications are the Senate will pass a final bill that looks like the current" dedicated funding measure, Fay said. "The House has more paths to cross, but the leadership are optimistic they'll get there this year."

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While some Minnesota conservation groups oppose including arts in the funding mix, Fay and Abello say the Great Outdoors Minnesota coalition hasn't taken a position. Instead, the group is advocating annual funding of at least $100 million for clean water protection; $100 million for natural areas such as parks, forests and wildlife and fishing areas; and at least $30 million for matching grant programs to fund conservation projects with local communities.

The group also favors using state bonding money to more quickly facilitate land purchases, Fay said.

"Minnesota is the fastest-growing state in the Midwest," he said. "A lot of the places we need to protect won't be there anymore if we don't make the purchases sooner."

Reach Dokken at 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 148, or bdokken@gfherald.com .

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