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Misused dollars: Legacy Funds meant for arts, water, not stadium

Minnesota lawmakers have started using Legacy dollars in ways they aren't supposed to, and if it continues, that money will no longer be available for purposes that voters intended -- extra spending on clean water, the outdoors, conservation, trails and the arts and culture.

"It would be a betrayal of the voters to use it on things it was never intended for," said Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

She was in Detroit Lakes Thursday with a handful of others concerned that Legacy dollars be used as intended.

"The threat that Legacy funds will be directed to a new Vikings stadium is very great," said Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota, adding that there are much better ways to pay for a new stadium. "I'd love it if the Vikings stick around, but this is the wrong funding source."

"They have a lot of ways to fund the stadium," Smith added. "They don't have to go back against the will of the voters and do this -- it just seems like a betrayal of the people who voted for this in the first place."

In 2008, Minnesota's voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution to: protect drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game and wildlife habitat; to preserve arts and cultural heritage; to support parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater.

The Legacy Amendment increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent beginning on July 1, 2009, and continuing until 2034. The additional sales tax revenue is distributed into four funds as follows: 33 percent to the clean water fund; 33 percent to the outdoor heritage fund; 19.75 percent to the arts and cultural heritage fund; and 14.25 percent to the parks and trails fund.

In the last legislative session, lawmakers essentially raided the Legacy funds to help pay for operating costs for agencies like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the DNR, which are supposed to be funded out of the state's general fund.

As part of the final budget agreement between the Republican-majority Legislature and the DFL governor, "conservation agencies suffered deep and disproportionate general fund cuts," Austin said in his executive summary of a Conservation Minnesota analysis.

"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 saw general fund reductions of nearly 40 percent."

Water programs suffered some of the deepest cuts, he added. The Clean Water Partnership was cut 81 percent and MPCA's programs for cleaning up failing septic systems saw a 100 percent general fund cut.

Those programs have now lost virtually all of their general funds and are largely dependant on Legacy funds.

In other words, the Legislature substituted Legacy money for general fund money, and that kind of substitution violates the intent of the law that the Legacy sales taxes be used to enhance regular state programs, not replace them.

"It raises warning flags for the future of Legacy funding," Austin said.

"Drastic and disproportionate cuts to Minnesota's beloved state parks also seem to be too closely correlated to the availability of Legacy funds," he said. "Further, in the 2011 session, the Legislature also raided lottery funds, which also have a prohibition against substitution, to backfill cuts to state parks as well as other programs."

Austin wants to make it clear that the vast majority of Legacy funds are being used properly, but Minnesota residents need to watch lawmakers like hawks to make sure they don't make a habit of raiding the funds.

The Legacy Amendment has had a big impact on the Historic Holmes Theatre -- both in terms of the wide variety of cultural events it brings in and in the amount of community outreach being done by the visiting artists, said Amy Stearns, executive director of the DLCCC/Holmes Theater.

"The World Fest program sponsored by Arts Midwest would never have happened without Legacy Funds," she said. And the Detroit Lakes Library was able to bring in Arctic explorer Will Steger for Polar Fest with the help of Legacy funding.

Detroit Lakes will celebrate a Legacy Destination Weekend May-17-19.

It means a weekend of arts, history and outdoor events and activities. It's part of a statewide collaborative project between the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, Conservation Minnesota, Explore Minnesota Tourism and local community partners.

Other communities celebrating Legacy Destination weekends this year are Bemidji in June, St. Cloud in July, Willmar in August and Cook County in September.