House Republicans are reexamining state funding for some key arts and cultural heritage groups -- a move that may take political aim at Minnesota Public Radio, the Minnesota Zoo and other entities that have gotten special appropriations.
In an unusual move on Tuesday, Rep. Dean Urdahl, who chairs the House Legacy Funding Division panel, introduced a new version of a Legacy amendment funding bill that would remove specific money recommendations for the state's influential public radio network and other cultural organizations and said they would instead compete for grants.
Urdahl, who struggled at times during a hearing to explain the sudden move, said it was partly the suggestion of Republican legislative leaders.
Legislation that Urdahl's panel adopted less than a week ago recommended that Minnesota Public Radio receive $2 million in Legacy money over the next two years, that public television get $7.8 million and that an assortment of minority groups, including the Council on Black Minnesotans, share $1 million.
In the new version, most of the groups that previously were to get specific appropriations would now have to compete for the money.
House Majority Leader Matt Dean said he reminded Urdahl of the "importance of making sure he has [Republican] caucus support" for Legacy funding for arts and cultural heritage projects, an area of spending that Dean acknowledged had rankled some Republicans. "MPR, it's safe to say, has been a concern in the past," said Dean.
Dean also singled out a $45,000 payment of Legacy money that was made last year to science fiction writer Neil Gaiman for a four-hour speaking appearance. Dean said that Gaiman, "who I hate," was a "pencil-necked little weasel who stole $45,000 from the state of Minnesota."
Tuesday's events were the clearest signal yet that Republicans, who hold new majorities in the House and Senate, were focusing a critical eye on the Legacy constitutional amendment, and the arts and cultural heritage part of it in particular. In 2008, with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's former wife as a major financial contributor to a get-out-the-vote campaign, Minnesotans passed the measure and earmarked state sales tax money over 25 years to outdoors, clean water, parks and trails and arts and cultural heritage projects.
A week ago, at a rally at the State Capitol, MPR president Bill Kling urged supporters to bend the ears of legislators and "give them hell." Reacting to the rally and funding request, Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, said there was a "broad-based perception nationwide" that public radio had a liberal bias.
Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said Urdahl's move appeared to be an attempt to win support for the legislation from conservative Republicans as the Legislature raced toward a May 23 adjournment. "MPR's probably the biggest" concern for Republicans, said Winkler, a member of Urdahl's Legacy panel. "MPR is a powerhouse. It's big radio. It's big public broadcasting," he said.
"I think [Republicans] have real problems with their right-wing base ... unless they bend over backward for all of these Tea Party conservatives," Winkler said. "That's what I'd put this in the context of."
Urdahl said MPR and the other arts and cultural organizations could, in competing for grants, ultimately get the same money they were originally recommended to get. "The same money is going to be there -- essentially, can be -- for all of the same programs," he said. "We're just doing it through a competitive grant program and thereby removing nearly all earmarks."
He acknowledged the move was "unusual."
Though the original legislation had earmarked $2 million for MPR, public radio officials had asked for $3.3 million over a two-year period. The $3.3 million, according to a MPR spokesman, represents 4 percent of MPR's total statewide services budget.
Following Tuesday's hearing, MPR issued a brief statement. "Public broadcasting projects made possible by Legacy funds have a positive impact on Minnesotans all over the state," said Bill Gray, an MPR spokesman. "We would be supportive of a process that ensures such investment."
DFLers said they were wary of the Republicans' motives but would await the release of the criteria that MPR and others groups would have to follow to compete for the money. "It's apparent [Urdahl] doesn't have the votes [among Republicans] to pass the bill," said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis. "I still don't know what's going on."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673