Keep the Constitution Out of Conservation Funding

Minnesota voters might have the opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment next fall that would dedicate a portion of state sales tax revenue for environmental and conservation programs, as well as a much smaller portion to the arts.  The Minnesota House and Senate are presently trying to work out the details.  So far the Senate wants to raise the sales tax 3/8 of 1 percent and the House wants to carve out 3/16 of 1 percent from the current sales tax.

I’ll be canoeing in the Boundary Waters over fishing opener.  I hunt our Wildlife Management Areas.  I cross country ski our state’s beautiful trails.  I’m all for conservation funding.  But dedicating a portion of our sales tax is no way to fund conservation.
Minnesota dedicates taxes to fund things such as roads, airports, and hazardous waste cleanups.  Car taxes fund roads, aircraft taxes fund airports, and hazardous waste generator taxes fund hazardous waste cleanups.  Do you see a trend here?  Minnesota primarily uses dedicated taxes as a tool to make beneficiaries of a state service pay for it.  This seems fair.  Those using roads should pay for roads.

But our sales tax is a general tax everybody pays, and it’s properly deposited in the state’s general fund.  If we dedicate a set portion of the sales tax, then conservation funding will be pegged to our overall level of consumer spending.  Why on earth should the amount we spend on wetlands be inextricably linked to the amount we spend on TVs, refrigerators, and watches? 

Dedicated taxes restrict future budgeting and priority setting.  This is a constitutional amendment we’re talking about, meaning that future changes would be very hard, requiring both legislative and statewide voter approval.  The end result of the Senate’s proposal–a 3/8 of 1 percent sales tax increase–would remove (to start) upwards of $280 million from the table when the legislators negotiate budget priorities.  For context, the Department of Natural Resource’s (DNR) entire biennial budget currently totals about $213 million.

Remember how difficult trimming the budget was last year?   Why single out conservation over education, roads, or human services?  They are all state priorities.  Proper budgeting should consider all of our spending priorities together and subject them to the annual give and take of legislating.

Dedicated funds, moreover, are less accountable to the public.  Unlike biennial budgets, constitutional amendments are not subject to periodic reviews.

Backers say we’re not spending enough, and because matters of conservation, they claim, consistently get shortchanged at the legislature, we must create a dedicated funding source.

Maybe we aren’t spending enough.  But for all of the above reasons, the budgeting process is the best way to hammer that out.

Then, again, maybe we are spending enough.  Consider, for example, facts like these:

  • Indicators of water quality in streams and lakes show remarkable improvement over the past four decades, according to Minnesota Environment 2000, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency report. 
  • $238 million of state and federal funds recently retired 100,000 acres of environmentally sensitive agricultural land in the Minnesota River watershed.  Plans are underway to retire another 120,000 acres in the state.
  • Minnesota owns 17 percent of the state’s land, a bigger proportion than found in nearly every state in the country.  Most of it is forestland managed by the DNR, with that agency acquiring more land each year. 
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Minnesota spends $91 per capita on conservation and $32 on parks and recreation.  The average for the nation as a whole is $64 and $20, respectively.

At the very least, Minnesota is not in the midst of a conservation funding crisis in need of a constitutional amendment–a move that not only would tie legislators’ hands, but also, and not incidentally, raise taxes in an already high-tax state.

— Peter Nelson is an attorney and a Policy Fellow with Center of the American Experiment.