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Jordan Gierset, left, and Tyler Stage walk past a mural for the Clay County Fair on Thursday, July 10, in Barnesville. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Nick Wagner

2008 amendment offers buffet of outdoors, arts funds

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The moose population in northern Minnesota’s forests is dwindling, but a tax that voters raised in 2008 could help save the giants.

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“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 areas of forest 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 gives a diner 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 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.

Revenue voters raised in 2008 provides money 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 received funding 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.

In the program’s sixth year, which is just beginning, $378 million is being spent on projects that otherwise would not have received money.

Pam Aakre, a Clay County Fair Board member, credits a mural painted on the back of the grandstand to the funds.

“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.

“One of the most disappointing aspects to us is our systems had to battle one another for limited resources,” Feldman said about state, greater Minnesota and Twin Cities parks.

Creation of a greater 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 northwest 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.

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.

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.

“With this money, we are able to spend maybe a little bit more just to get some more quality arts and entertainment,” Aakre said.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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