Editorial: Artful dodging on Legacy funding

  • Updated: January 16, 2010 - 9:26 PM

Lawmakers must heed voters' wishes, not special interests'.

In November 2008, in the gloom of a gathering recession, Minnesotans made a courageous investment in the future. Voters overwhelmingly passed the Legacy Amendment, choosing to tax themselves more to preserve the treasures intrinsic to this state's quality of life: natural resources and the arts.

Sadly, when it comes to the ballot measure's arts funding, the Legislature has rewarded voters' generosity by fumbling on something else fundamentally Minnesotan: the state's long tradition of good governance. Two poorly thought out additions by lawmakers to the amendment's 2009 enabling legislation have created the perception that special interests are wielding too much clout when it comes to divvying up the $1.2 billion generated for the arts over the next 25 years.

The ballot measure increases the sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent; 19.75 percent of the revenue is dedicated to the arts, while the remainder goes to protect wildlife habitat and waterways and to support parks and trails. In 2010, the tax is expected to generate $48 million for the arts and $195 million for other purposes. With that much money flowing out of state coffers, lawmakers must ensure there's zero doubt about the integrity of the distribution. Their handling of the arts funding process has so far given off whiffs of pork-barrel politics as usual.

One misstep by lawmakers involved their clumsy formation of an arts advisory panel. Thirteen nonelected representatives -- some from traditional arts groups and some whose arts connection is fuzzier -- have served on the panel, which began meeting in October and was set to disband on Friday. The panel did not make specific spending recommendations, nor are lawmakers bound by its report. Members also could not direct money to themselves -- lawmakers have that authority and already did that, providing substantial sums in last year's legislation to more than half of the panel members' organizations.

The panel was never intended to be anything but advisory, according to key lawmakers. In all likelihood, the group's report will gather dust while lawmakers continue to decide where the money goes. But confusion about its mission -- exacerbated by the presence of a high-powered lobbyist sitting on it -- has understandably led to conflict-of-interest concerns and speculation that panel members set up the rules to steer money to their organizations. Lawmakers need to set the record straight.

In a second ill-advised step, legislators muddied the waters over what constitutes "art.'' Lawmakers gave away millions in Legacy arts funding in the 2009 legislation. Immediate "arts" recipients designated in the bill included zoos, public television, the Science Museum of Minnesota, civics education groups and Minnesota Public Radio (another appropriation unrelated to Legacy gave MPR $500,000 this biennium to extend radio service outstate).

The Minnesota constitutional amendment states that Legacy money may be "spent only for arts, arts education, and arts access, and to preserve Minnesota's history and cultural heritage." The organizations that received the money do good work, but it's a safe bet that voters didn't tax themselves to support civics education or MPR's regional news service (a Star Tribune competitor). The floodgates are now open for almost anything to be construed as art, diverting money from the groups that make Minnesota a cultural mecca. Legislators need to remedy this. At the very least, lawmakers should ensure regular audits -- we suggest the Office of the Legislative Auditor -- to guard against the money's use for non-arts purposes.

Funding for the arts and environment is critical to Minnesota's future. Although the ballot measure isn't the ideal way to fund either, Minnesotans have spoken and their hearts were in the right place. Legislators need to heed their wishes and ensure the money goes to the arts organizations that voters had in mind.

  • FUNDING RECIPIENTS

    Science Museum of Minnesota: $900,000 over two years.

    Minnesota Public Radio: $2.6 million over two years.

    Duluth Children's Museum: $500,000 over two years.

    Kids Voting Minnesota, Learning Law and Democracy Foundation, and YMCA Youth in Government: $500,000 over two years.

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