Friday, February 27, 2009

Legacy Amendment

On November 5th, 2009, Minnesota voters approved a general sales use tax levy of 3/8% known has the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, a levy which will be in effect for twenty-five years. The following was the ballot question, which further explains the intended uses of the funds:

"Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate funding to protect our drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat [33%]; to preserve our arts and cultural heritage [19.75%]; to support our parks and trails [14.25%]; and to protect, enhance, and restore our lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater [33%] by increasing the sales and use tax rate beginning July 1, 2009, by three-eighths of one percent on taxable sales until the year 2034?"

The tax is projected to raise approximately $275 million in FY 2011.

The debate of the measure was interesting in that it was not just debating the merits or needs of the funded areas, but also the fundamental idea of constitutionally earmarking a revenue source for specific uses. The Star Tribune op-ed pieces provide two (opposing) sample view points:

The latter piece (Morse) advocates for the amendment based on merits, while the former (Johnson and Gilje) criticizes it for its effects on representative-democracy. The writers believe that passing such an amendment, regardless of merits, will become a slippery slope for voters who will be faced with similar such measures in the future, which will skew the work of the legislature in developing priorities:

“Lawmakers always are faced with demands that vastly exceed revenues. They assemble every two years, with a budget recommendation from the governor. They debate, they change, they add, they subtract. They work on the tax and fee side, they work on the spending side, and ultimately they enact a two-year budget. Not satisfactory to everyone by any means, but it's representative democracy. The alternative represented by the amendment is to select a few functions for favored treatment, without determining if they are more important than others, and to guarantee them a special piece of the revenue pie, via the Constitution, thereby keeping the governor and Legislature, our elected representatives, out of the process.”

Removing the merits from the debate, the point of the detractors is understood. Further, if something potentially unpopular, like offender re-entry programs, where placed on a ballot for funding, their viability would be dashed. Without an elected body to make difficult decisions relative to others, important priorities may fall by the wayside. The issue with the Legacy Amendment is not the causes to be funded nor even the sales tax levy itself, but the decision making process irrelative to other needs. Maybe.

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