Legacy Amendment spending reports fall short
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — It's been three years since Minnesota voters authorized a sales tax increase to raise additional money for conservation, arts and parks, but the state is unable to provide a comprehensive list of the funded projects and their outcomes.
Minnesota Public Radio reported Tuesday (http://bit.ly/tIXLPv ) that a quarter of the $456 million allocated in the first two years of the Legacy Amendment is not listed on the state website that's supposed to be the primary resource for displaying where and how the tax money is spent. And while the site lists broad programs that received money, details are often lacking about which groups or projects received grants and whether the work was finished.
MPR said it found that the money trail for Legacy spending is hard to follow and rife with inconsistencies. For example, MPR found, none of the nearly $9 million in clean water funds the Minnesota Department of Agriculture received in the first two years appears on the website. And a website visitor can't find out which groups received part of an $8.4 million Department of Natural Resources conservation grant.
The reporting problems make it difficult for Minnesota residents to judge how well their tax money is being spent, MPR said.
Voters approved the constitutional amendment in 2008 to send revenue from a three-eighths of 1 percent sales tax to four areas: the outdoors, clean water, arts and culture, and parks and trails.
When the Legislature approved the first spending plans in 2009, it required all recipients to report on the public website how they were using the money. The Legislative Coordinating Commission received $70,000 to design and run the website. The 13 state agencies that receive and distribute Legacy money are responsible for providing the site with data.
But MPR reported that multiple factors have led to the delays in posting the information on the website: technical problems, administrative staffing shortages, and struggles with juggling the creation of a reporting system while also carrying out new programs for the first time.
For example, the responsibility for reporting how agencies were spending their sudden infusions of cash for special projects hit at the same time their general fund budgets were being cut, causing staffing shortages that have made it harder for some agencies to respond.
Greg Hubinger, director of the Legislative Coordinating Commission, said some projects -- such as an arts event -- are relatively easy to report on, while tracking longer-term projects, such as widespread water monitoring or a multi-step land conservation effort, isn't as straightforward.
"What happens with these funds is a really wide range of activities, and trying to capture that in a meaningful way for citizens who want to look at what's going on is the challenge," Hubinger said.
The Legislative Auditor will report in mid-November on how well the accountability and oversight mechanisms are working. It also will report on what types of activities have received Legacy funds so far.
Two lawmakers who drafted the accountability requirements said they're satisfied with the Legacy website. Sen. Richard Cohen, D-St. Paul, said the idea was to give the public basic information about where Legacy funds were going while also requiring a higher level of reporting for the Legislature to oversee through its auditor. He said that's why the auditor's upcoming report will be so important.
"I don't know that we need to put a lot more burden on a small grantee," he said. "We should defer to the auditor on some things, because that office will have more of an overview of what has been done on a comparative basis."
But Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said reporting on individual projects receiving Legacy money shouldn't be that difficult.
For example, he said, a citizen should be able to see on the website how much an author received to speak at a specific library on a certain day. The site currently describes events held at libraries but doesn't say how much each event cost.
"The idea was that folks would be able to follow the bill and expenditure of the allocation through the process right down to who gets it, what committee or what group gets it, and if they have any conflicts of interest," he said.
Legacy Amendment site:
Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mpr.org
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.