Case Study: Minnesota's Legacy

By Michael Murillo

One of the greatest challenges faced by environmental organizations is securing funding. The constant cycle of finding and applying for grants can consume valuable time that could otherwise be devoted to conservation efforts. This issue stems from a scarcity of funds at every level. Environmental conservation is consistently underfunded by the public, and Wisconsin has suffered from having limited funds available for state agencies and nonprofits. 

Our neighbor, however, has devised a long-term solution: increased sales tax. While increasing taxes to fund public efforts is by no means novel, Minnesota’s achievement is exceedingly rare. 

It all began with an idea to provide steady funding to areas of public interest that are usually underfunded. The solution that activists came up with was bold: a constitutional amendment to raise the state sales tax by .375%. This only amounts to 4¢ on a $10 purchase, but raising taxes is never an easy sell. Thusly, a ten year effort was required before legislators even approved a referendum on the amendment. The Legacy Amendment, as it came to be known, distributes the increased revenue to four funds: clean water, outdoor heritage, arts & culture, and parks & trails. 

Luckily for Minnesota, ratifying an amendment is relatively simple: it must be approved by simple majorities in both legislative chambers, then approved by a simple majority in a public referendum. In 2008, after over a decade of persistent advocacy, Minnesotans approved the amendment with 56% in favor of it. The campaign cost arts and environmental organizations nearly $5 million, but the steadfast support from artists, sportsmen, and conservationists proved effective. The Legacy Amendment took effect in 2009 and will last 25 years, until 2034. It is expected to raise over $7 billion in revenue over its lifetime, ensuring steady funding for important projects throughout the state. 

Considering the apparent success of Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment, what is stopping Wisconsin from following suit? Minnesotans were willing to raise their sales tax (which is nary a popular choice) to 6.875%, while Wisconsin’s is one of the lowest in the country at a mere 5%. Despite the fact that Wisconsin could easily raise its sales tax to fund conservation while still maintaining an unusually low rate, there are economic and political reasons why this has not happened. 

Economically, Wisconsin compares poorly to Minnesota. While Wisconsin has a slightly larger population than its neighbor, its gross domestic product (GDP) is more than $20 billion less. Perhaps more important, Minnesota’s GDP per capita and median household income are both $10,000 higher than Wisconsin’s. Minnesotans voting on the referendum were more likely to have a higher disposable income, and could therefore afford a higher sales tax. Wisconsin voters are unlikely to be as willing to give up any income they don’t have to, especially considering the high level of poverty in our largest city. The economic argument can work both ways, though. Investing in public improvement projects that such an amendment would fund is a cheap and visible way to improve impoverished communities. 

Politically, things get more complicated. Passing an amendment in Wisconsin is not as easy as it is Minnesota. Before going to referendum, an amendment must pass both legislative chambers with a simple majority not once, but twice — in successive sessions. The text of the amendment must also be posted publicly at least three months before a second vote in the legislature. Essentially, an amendment must pass through one legislature, wait at least three months until the next statewide election, pass through the legislature again, then be approved by a majority of the public during a referendum; meaning two statewide elections must take place before an amendment can be ratified. 

Additionally, Wisconsin has a less-than-stellar record on constitutional amendments when compared to Minnesota. The last referendum on an amendment in Wisconsin was in 2006, and the ratified amendment itself (strictly defining marriage as between a man and woman) lasted less than a decade before being declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. Minnesota, on the other hand, has voted on 4 amendments since 2006, all of which have been won by progressives (approved increased public transportation funding, approved Legacy Amendment, rejection of same-sex marriage ban, and rejection of voter identification law). Minnesota has been more liberal and progressive than Wisconsin for a long time, now. For Wisconsin to pass something similar to the Legacy Amendment, we will have to move quite a bit to the left. 

We should begin our push for increased, dedicated public funding not in spite of the obvious challenges, but because of them. These things take time, and persistent effort is required to achieve a goal as lofty as a Legacy-style amendment. Minnesotan activists fought for over a decade before they won their battle — are Wisconsinites willing to do the same?