Minnesota Off-Road Recreation Spending Under Attack

Published July 24, 2010

Minnesota motorists may be unaware that every time they pay to fill their vehicle’s gas tank they are helping fund programs benefiting owners of motorized recreational vehicles such as boats, ATVs, and dirt bikes. With the state unable to fund road and bridge repairs, some groups are demanding lawmakers put a stop to the spending on offroad and boating facilities.

Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation (MRR), a group that opposes motorized recreation on public land, released a report in July showing in the past nine years the state has spent more than $150 million to construct and maintain boat landings and snowmobile and dirt bike trails.

 “It is just not right that snowmobilers are using Duluth’s beat-up streets and our state’s public-right-of-ways. I want all of my gas tax to be used to fix our crumbling roads and bridges,” said MRR Executive Director Scott Brown. “It is time to put the gas tax back into Minnesota’s roads and bridges, where it belongs.”

Three Percent to Recreation
According to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington, DC-based taxpayer education organization, Minnesotans pay 27.2 cents to the state per gallon of gas, the 20th highest rate in the nation. Last year that tax raised $745 million in revenue, 3 percent of which went to motorized recreation infrastructure.

The state’s constitution says gas tax dollars must be spent on vehicles using public roads. Since 1961, legislators have interpreted that to mean gas tax revenue raised from boats can be spent on boating programs and gas taxes raised from ATV gas sales can fund trails. Since then, more than $350 million has been spent on non-road and bridge projects, according to MRR.

Over the years Minnesota has estimated how much gas tax revenue comes from motorized recreation vehicles and has made allocations based on that number. In 2005 a survey was mailed to residents to gauge how much fuel is spent on ATVs, and it resulted in a $1 million increase for ATV programs.

“Three hundred fifty million dollars in public gas tax revenue has already been diverted to motorized recreation [since the 1960s], much of it in the last 10 years,” said Brown. “Despite predictions of Minnesota roads in decline in the next decade, Minnesota’s legislature will divert an additional $200 million in public gas tax revenue to motorized recreation unless Minnesotans intervene.”

Recreational Riders Support Programs
Not surprisingly, recreational enthusiasts think differently. Chuck Doherty, treasurer of the Minnesota United Snowmobile Association, said, “I think it’s a beautiful plan, and I like the way it works. A chunk of that tax that I pay when I fill my car fixes bridges and roads. But when I drive my snowmobile, I’m not using those bridges and roads. I’m using the trails.”

Taxpayers League of Minnesota President Phil Krinkie, who previously served in the Minnesota State Legislature, rejects Doherty’s argument.

“The gas tax has been confused for a user fee, which it is not. The Minnesota Constitution says the money raised from gas sales should be spent on roads. Special-interest groups should not dictate the use of the gas tax [be diverted] from its original purpose.”

Fee Instead of Tax
Krinkie says funding for infrastructure for motorized recreation vehicles should be paid for by user fees, similar to park entrance fees and hunting permit fees.

“As soon as a boater or snowmobiler pays that fee, it would directly go to pay for trails and boat launches. Under the current system, the legislature gets to choose which pot the gas tax revenue goes into,” he said.

Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook), chairman of the Senate Tax Committee and an ATV owner, believes the current system should stay in place.

“It’s based on a number of machines and the average number of gallons of gasoline consumed, or it’s based on some survey,” he said.

Bakk said if gas tax revenues were not diverted to pay for recreational vehicles, the funding for trails and boat launches would be taken from general funds.

Special Interest Favors
Krinkie says the situation is a result of the legislature letting special interest groups influence how taxpayers’ money is spent.

“It’s not their money. The power of appropriation best rests with the legislature. The more power that is taken away from them, the more problems you have,” he said.

The debate over whether motorists should subsidize motorized recreation appears likely to persist. Heading into November’s elections, MRR has launched a “public education” campaign on what it calls gas tax diversions and is urging Minnesotans to ask gubernatorial and state legislative candidates to publicly state their position on the spending.

Krinkie said the Taxpayers League of Minnesota will also be closely watching the issue and how the state spends the gas tax money.

“We need to get back to the principles laid out in the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions.”

Nick Baker ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.