Conservationists cite progress, six years after Minnesota voters OK legacy amendment
ST. PAUL — The moose population in northern Minnesota’s forests is dwindling, but a tax that voters approved in 2008 could help save the giants.
“All of us came together on this project, Minnesota Moose Collaborative, to do what we know would work for one element to improve the moose’s existence: improving habitat,” President Mark Johnson of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association said.
The $3 million the organization has received is being used to clear forest areas of brush, some of which was 20 feet tall, to make way for better grazing areas. It also is being used to plant trees to give shade from the warm summer sun.
“From a moose’s standpoint, it is like we renewed the buffet,” Johnson said.
“Buffet” may be a good way to describe where the moose project received its funding, because like a food buffet giving diners lots of options, a large variety of funding opportunities came in the “legacy amendment” voters approved in 2008.
In what is known as the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Minnesota voters approved a constitutional change to increase the state income tax by three-eighths of a percent. In the first six years of funding, including money legislators approved this spring, about $1.5 billion has been split among four funds: outdoor heritage, clean water, parks-trails and arts-cultural.
The money goes for projects as varied as $334 so the Becker County Historical Society could microfilm newspapers to $36 million for one of several projects to protect the state’s forests.
Nearly 10,000 projects have benefited from the state funding buffet.
The amendment requires that all money be spent on things the state otherwise would not fund. The sales tax increase ends after 25 years. The tax has generated $378 million in its sixth year.
Pam Aakre, a Clay County Fair Board member, credits a mural painted on the back of the grandstand to the money.
“We would not have been able to do it without legacy funds,” she said, a comment heard across Minnesota from funding recipients.
A handful of other states have looked into expanding outdoors-related spending, and a few did by raising taxes, but Minnesota lawmakers found they needed to include money for arts and culture projects, such as theaters and artwork, for the measure to get enough legislative votes.
The amendment faced relatively mild opposition once in front of voters, and indications are it passed mostly to boost outdoors program spending.
“Minnesotans feel so strongly about our great outdoors, when given the choice they are willing to pay for it,” Executive Director Brett Feldman of the Minnesota Parks and Trails Council said.
And it happened during a recession. It allowed Minnesota to increase spending in the four areas at a time when the economy forced other states to cut back.
“I think it is just phenomenal,” state Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said of the first five years.
“We are in the early stages of constructing a house,” Landwehr said, illustrating why he and others think it is too early to declare the legacy amendment a total success.
Parks battle for money Those involved with legacy funds generally agree the biggest problem has been geographic balance, especially in parks spending.
“One of the most disappointing aspects to us is our systems had to battle one another for limited resources,” Feldman said about state, nonmetro Minnesota and Twin Cities parks.
Creation of a nonmetro Minnesota parks organization has smoothed things out, but “as long as there is money, there always are going to be battles,” Feldman said.
Minnesotans cannot get a full handle on geographic distribution of the money because most projects cover more than one county and determining how much each county benefits from each project is next to impossible.
Data compiled by the Legislative Coordinating Commission show each of the state’s 87 counties got a piece of the pie, with counties with more people getting more projects.
In northwestern Minnesota, Mahnomen County got the fewest projects, 82, while the state’s largest county, Hennepin, led the way with 2,081 projects that used legacy money.
There have been attempts to shift money from urban to rural and vice versa, but the battles have fallen far short of fears. Lawmakers retain final say over how money is spent after committees for each fund make their recommendations.
Some lawmakers, mostly Republicans, question land the state is buying with legacy money, saying it should be left in private hands. Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said that while overall legacy funds are “doing so many great things,” there needs to be more discussion about land purchases.
“How are we going to deal with the cost?” he asked about ongoing expenses such as management and fire protection.
Covering ongoing costs McNamara, Landwehr and others said they worry about the costs of creating new programs and suggested more work needs to be done so budgets do not balloon to take care of legacy projects.
Landwehr worries that the public could expect too much from legacy funds. They cannot solve all problems, he said.
In the clean water arena, for instance, Landwehr said that even though it gets nearly a third of all legacy money, all Minnesota water will not be clean when the legacy program ends in 2034. There are just too many problems with the water, he said.
Even with potential problems, interviews with people involved in legacy funding showed most consider the amendment a huge success. Few naysayers could be found.
The biggest success so far may be spending $36 million to protect large blocks of forest in northern Minnesota ($6 million more came from other sources).
Landwehr called it a “stellar example of a project you never would have seen” without the legacy amendment.
Other forestland near Brainerd and in southeast Minnesota also was protected, and legacy money helped leverage federal funds to clean up land along the St. Louis River near Duluth.
Compared to the forest work, the Worthington International Festival is a small-dollar user of legacy funds.
In past years, the festival often has received $5,000 for the annual mid-July festival.
This year, Rod Sankey, a Worthington City Council member, said he liked the International Festival approach because it offers a venue for Worthington’s diverse residents to mix and mingle.
“I think even more people should come down here because it’s a good way to begin understanding other cultures instead of just having negative attitudes about our diversity,” Sankey said.
Like the International Festival, the Clay County Fair has received smaller legacy grants.
In addition to the $10,250 the fair received for the grandstand mural, it got about $15,000 in two years to bring in singers, square dancers, a puppeteer and artist to offer family activities the fair otherwise could not afford.
“With this money, we are able to spend maybe a little bit more just to get some more quality arts and entertainment,” Aakre said.
Forum News Service reporter Jane Moore contributed to this report.