Outdoors, arts advocates fight to preserve Legacy Amendment intentionsPaul Austin and Sheila Smith have promises to keep. That’s why they have miles to go on their statewide tour to tell residents about the state of Legacy Amendment funds and how they want to protect them from unintended uses.
By: Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune
Paul Austin and Sheila Smith have promises to keep.
That’s why they have miles to go on their statewide tour to tell residents about the state of Legacy Amendment funds and how they want to protect them from unintended uses.
Minnesota voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2008 to use a three-eighths-cent sales tax to be dedicated to the outdoors, arts and culture, clean water, and parks and trails. The Legacy fund reaches about $240 million each year.
Sparked by talk that the money could be used to help build a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, Austin, the director of Conservation Minnesota, and Smith, director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, want voters to know that Legacy spending has executed well but recently there’s been some fraying of definitions on what qualifies for support.
The two were in Duluth on Thursday as part of a tour of the state.
Sitting with Smith and Austin were three Northland people who have been grateful to receive Legacy money in the past: Rebecca Lynn Petersen, director of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra; Dave Zentner, chairman of a consortium of 25 regional outdoors groups called Dedicated Funding Working Group; and Sam Black, assistant director of the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council.
Petersen and Black said Legacy money helped bring symphony orchestras to small towns across the region, something attendance shows people are craving, Black said.
“Legacy dollars are making their way into every community,” Petersen said.
Which is why any threat to the intended use of the money is a threat to everyone in the state, Smith said.
With deep cuts in the state budget last year, a study by Conservation Minnesota found, some state agencies were left with little to work with as the Legislature cut beyond historical levels knowing they could limp along with Legacy funds. That violates the tenor of the Legacy formula, the study said, that the pool of money should not replace traditional funding mechanisms such as the general budget.
Those budget actions were one reason the Office of the Legislative Auditor performed an audit on Legacy funds last year. Its conclusions, released in November, stated that as a whole, the fund was working as intended but some problems existed:
“They’ve been doing a fairly decent job in getting funds out,” Smith said.
The main concern is the Vikings talk and the use of Legacy to offset general fund losses.
Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL- Duluth, listened to a presentation on the audit last week as the House Legacy Funding Division Committee met for the first time this session.
“I was not shocked or surprised by any of your conclusions,” Murphy said to Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles. “We didn’t have a strong framework in place before we started.”
Nobles said the audit brought “disappointment and frustration” because his office is careful to not set policy through its reviews. “Where there is ambiguity, I don’t think you want us going out on our own,” he said. “We really want to use the law, legislation and constitution as our reference point.”
In other words, the Legislature needs to set some guidelines, committee members agreed.
“We need something stronger,” Murphy said.
Nobles said legislators need to be careful about who defines how Legacy money can be used. If it went to a court decision, all parties, including small groups, would have to expertly define what it had for “traditional” versus “supplemental” funding. That could prove an administrative burden to small groups seeking money, Nobles said.
Legacy advocates said they are ready to work with legislators on defining those uses.
“We’ve laid out some standards,” Austin said.
Smith and Austin said quick action was taken when talk of the Vikings stadium came around.
Groups advocating for the four Legacy funding recipients were alerted and 13,000 calls or letters to legislators were generated, Smith said. “The outrage was fast and furious.”
Smith said the talk of using Legacy money has gone quiet publicly but she keeps an ear to the ground at the Capitol. “It’s in discussions behind the scenes,” she said.
The proposal came from the Republican ranks of the Legislature, but Rep. Dean Urdahl from central Minnesota, a Republican, has said he would not favor raiding the fund for a stadium. Urdahl is the chairman of the House Legacy committee.
Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, made the Legacy suggestion last fall when legislators were scrambling to find money for a stadium. He’s not a fan of expanded gambling in the state, the top issue in stadium money talk, and threw out the idea of using Legacy funds because the Vikings could be considered a part of the state’s culture.
“One man’s Orpheum (Theater) is another man’s Vikings stadium,” Daudt said in October.
Smith and Austin were careful to say Thursday they aren’t anti-Vikings, just against using Legacy money to pay for the stadium.
“It would be such a destruction,” Zentner said. “It’s a timeout and totally out of bounds.”
It would be a break of that promise to voters four years ago, Austin said.
“We said we’d have the strongest language possible,” to avoid abuses, he said. “We want to make sure that trust is met.”