Legacy money funding projects, stirring controversy
ST. PAUL -- Most observers say they are happy with how money from a sales tax increase is being spent on outdoors and arts projects.
But there are some who see things differently.
The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council last month presented a Senate finance committee with its latest plans for providing nearly $60 million in grants for wetlands, prairies, forests and habitat in 82 of the state's 87 counties.
"I think the results are some really balanced and effective packages to meet the needs of different habitat priorities," said Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, who serves on the council.The presentation was the latest since the state began collecting proceeds last year from a three-eighths of 1 percent increase in the state sales tax from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment.
The proposals easily passed the committee and soon will reach full Senate and House votes.
Nearly a year into the effort, groups dispersing the funds have committed tens of millions of dollars. And thus far lawmakers and watchdog organizations say they're largely satisfied with the projects being funded and the processes by which money is doled.
"People have good intentions and long-range plans," said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown. "The legacy projects have addressed them or are addressing them."
But the amendment hasn't gone without controversy. Lawmakers have at times quibbled over whether funding priority should be given to projects that create jobs or if the funds should be used to acquire land.
Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said he is hearing from land owners, farmers and elected officials in his district concerned about Minnesota buying land and taking it off tax rolls. That is part of the outdoor council's proposals.
Westrom said he prefers easements or implementing a plan where the state offsets land purchases by selling other parcels it isn't using. "It's not the time to keep adding to the land the state owns."
Some have criticized funding Minnesota Public Radio as outside the realm of the amendment's targets. And former Rep. Phil Krinkie, now president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, objects to seeing organizations that lobbied for the bill and who stand to benefit from its funds represented on committees handing out grants.
"Talk about a conflict of interest," he said. "That's what is wrong with dedicated funds to start with."
Defenders say MPR and 12 other groups participated in a process for determining the framework of what should make organizations eligible for arts funding, not in which organizations received grants.
"We were called and asked to serve at our own personal or organizational expense," said Michael Garcia, president of the Duluth Children's Museum, which received $500,000.
The museum began receiving funds in October and has used them to create programs that make membership easier for low-income households.
"We feel the investment has had a positive impact," Garcia said.
Some lawmakers think the clean water money would stretch further by funding projects with greater regional impact.
"I think the bulk of that funding ... ought to go toward dealing with the flooding or quality water supply issues in the various basins," said Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead. "That's happened to a certain extent but not nearly as much as it needs to. ... I think that's what people voted for."The only non-funding legacy bills currently under discussion, proposed by Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids and Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, aim to tighten up definitions of "enhance, protect and restore," which had been tightly defined in the constitutional amendment language.
Those definitions were broadened in the House at the end of the 2009 session. Outdoors groups worry that could divert funds to unintended projects.
"Definitions are a big issue," said Garry Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for Change.Saxhaug said the organizations probably would be fine either way, but "I'm trying to tighten it up a little bit."
The Minnesota Citizens for the Arts is concerned about confusion over defining "cultural," but acknowledged there isn't much momentum for changing anything.
"I think we will have to be carefully watching those things in upcoming appropriations cycles," said Executive Director Sheila Smith.
Murphy, who was instrumental in authoring legislation that enacted the Legacy Amendment, also doesn't see the need for changes.
And despite wording concerns, Leaf said, "in its first two years it's put a lot of projects on the ground."
Others lawmakers, throughout session, have said it's too early to consider major changes. Sen.
Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, and Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, both said they want to see the process play out over the full biennium.
Andrew Tellijohn reports for Forum Communications Co.