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Protecting the Legacy dollars

Substitute or supplement?

The definition of those words, as they apply to state conservation program and Legacy Amendment funds, is at the crux of a discussion between lawmakers and proponents of the 2008 constitutional amendment voters approved. The amendment authorized raising the sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent with one fifth of that new revenue going to arts and culture projects.

The Legacy Amendment says the newly dedicated funds “must supplement traditional sources of funding for these purposes and may not be used as a substitute.”

Paul Austin, director of Conservation Minnesota, and Sheila Smith, executive director, of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, began a tour of outstate Minnesota Friday objecting to incidents where they maintain state budgets were severely cut and then backfilled with money from the Legacy fund. Austin, in an analysis of recent state budgets said Legacy money should be used for the long-term benefit of the state’s natural resources and not to solve short-term budget problems.

“It’s inconceivable the voters would tax themselves so they could do the same or less (for the environment),” Austin said.

Austin claimed the deal that ended a three-week government shutdown yielded deep and disproportionate general fund cuts to conservation agencies. His study maintained that where most state agencies were cut by 5 to 10 percent the five primary conservation agencies were cut by 16.5 percent and the Pollution Control Agency was cut by nearly 40 percent.

Austin said Conservation Minnesota suggested three parameters or standards that would help the Legislature make common sense decisions.

One of these was that conservation agency funding, which was at about 1 percent of the general fund budget before the Legacy Amendment, should not drop below that level just because Legacy money is being used. The organization also is against the raiding of dedicated outdoor license funds to solve budget shortfalls and that bonding bill continue to include traditional dollar amounts for conservation.

Smith said most of the Legacy money for the arts goes through regional arts councils such as the Five Wings Arts Council and the State Arts Board. She said 98 percent of the Legacy money is going where it should, including to multiple outstate artists.

“We’re watching the border, the edges of things,” she said.

Millie Engisch Morris, artist director of the Crossing Arts Alliance in Brainerd joined Austin and Smith in Brainerd and said many Brainerd area projects have received Legacy funding. The money, she said, benefits the local arts and those who appreciate arts. Among programs receiving the funding have been the Lakes Area Music Festival, concerts by Seth Doud and Wayne Renn and EgoFest, a showing of independent films that drew people from as far away as Chicago and Canada. In the last two years, Morris said, $82,444 in Legacy money has gone to support local projects and individual artists.

Among grants using Legacy money in the Brainerd area through the Five Wings Arts Council were ones that went to the Legacy Chorale, the Crossing Art Alliance, the Central Lakes College Foundation and the CLC Theatre Department, Pequot Lakes Community Theatre and elementary schools in Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Remer and Longville.

Morris said individual Five Wings Arts Council recipients include Phil Holbrook, project director for EgoFest; and Jess Cavazos.

Arts activities, Smith said, help local economies, noting that when the community theatres offer a production it generates business in area restaurants.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, acknowledges the issue surrounding the proper spending of Legacy money can be confusing.

“It’s a tough area,” he said. “It’s a gray area. We in the Legislature try not to do that (backfill with Legacy money where funds have been cut).”

Ingebrigtsen, whose district includes Todd County, also sits on the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which disburses Legacy money. He said the recent deficits have put state legislators in a difficult position and they’re not trying to merely supplant money that has been cut by the Legislature.

“If it’s done, it’s certainly not done intentionally,” he said. While he said he understands the thrust of the arts and conservation groups’ arguments, there are outside factors.

“When these budgets are cut their areas are going to be cut as well,” the lawmaker said.

He noted that there is about $184 million going to environmental projects that Conservation Minnesota is not counting when it figures its traditional 1 percent of the general fund money.

“The bottom line is it’s still going into the environment,” Ingebrigtsen said.

On one point the legislator and the arts and conservation supporters all agree. They don’t want to see Legacy money going to fund a Vikings stadium.

“Absolutely not,” Ingebrigtsen said. “It doesn’t cut it.”

Smith termed the notion of such use for the funds as outrageous and said polls identified that potential funding source for the stadium as the least popular option with 77 percent opposed. She said that when the idea first came up a few months ago legislators were “freaked out” by the negative response. She said lawmakers received about 13,000 letters against the idea in two weeks — what she described as a huge wave of public disgust. While the notion has not been publicly discussed lately, Smith said citizens opposed to the idea should not feel safe, fearing that a last-minute stadium deal may yet try to use Legacy funds.

“It’s a betrayal to the voters,” she said of the possible stadium funding with Legacy dollars, in part because that was never discussed in the campaign to pass the constitutional amendment.

She and Morris said they’re not opposed to a Vikings stadium, they just feel that Legacy funds are an inappropriate source.

On the positive side, Austin said there has been an increase in the number of lakes that have been tested for water quality and a large number of acres of prairie and wetlands have been protected or restored.

Austin said conservation groups understand they’re competing with legitimate spending requests by education and health care proponents but he is concerned the lawmakers will adopt an attitude of “we’ll take care of it later,” when it comes to the environment.

If they do, he said it could have serious repercussions for Minnesota’s future.

“You’re slowly degrading the things people love about the state,” Austin said.

Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860