Arts panel looks after its own for Legacy funds

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 11, 2010 - 11:23 PM

More than half of the arts groups with reps on state panel weighing sales-tax proceeds have profited.

More than half of the organizations represented on an arts panel crafting guidelines for who will share in more than $1 billion from the Legacy Amendment sales tax have already received money -- and they hope to get more.

No conflict-of-interest rules govern the panel, which does not make specific funding recommendations on how to divvy the proceeds of the state's Legacy sales-tax hike, which is dedicated exclusively to the environment, clean water, arts/cultural heritage and parks and trails.

But the unique arrangement on the arts panel is in direct contrast to the panel that recommends Legacy money for outdoors groups. Called the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, that panel has strict prohibitions against including their own organizations in the funding.

The Legislature ultimately determines who gets the money.

On the arts side, the plan that will shape the distribution of $45 million this year -- and money in the coming years -- lies with 13 nonelected representatives from such organizations as the Duluth Children's Museum, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), the Plum Creek Library system and the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Phil Krinkie, the president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, which opposed the amendment's passage in 2008, said he's not surprised at what is happening because special interest groups were behind the amendment from the beginning. The arts panel members, he said, appear to be operating under the notion that "I don't have a conflict of interest because it's in my best interest."

"You can't have someone sitting there 'representing MPR,' and then saying I'm not in any way biased," said Krinkie.

MPR already has a contract for $2.6 million in Legacy money over the next two years to help expand its news, arts and cultural reporting. Another panel member, the Science Museum of Minnesota, will get $900,000.

Organizations linked to four of the panel's 13 representatives have received a total of $5 million -- even before the funding guidelines have been released, and at least four others have also received Legacy money.

Michael Garcia, president of the Duluth Children's Museum and a panel member, said the group steered clear of writing recommendations that favored their organizations, but acknowledged that the temptation has been present. "Let's be clear, I love money," Garcia said.

Jeff Nelson, the public affairs director and registered lobbyist for MPR, who serves on the panel, said "certainly there were times" when he wondered whether panel members were pushing for specific language to benefit their organization. "Some of the times, there's things I would say" that other panel members might wonder about, he said.

Arts executives not on the panel are watching to see how the amendment's promise is translated into reality.

"I am the guy who was saying in '08, 'Yeah, I'm so happy we got this,'" said Al Justiniano, artistic director of Teatro del Pueblo, which is not on the panel and has not yet received funds. "It's exciting to have this pool of money because it's getting really tough for the arts. But it's always important for us to make sure that there are no conflicts of interest and that things are done in an inclusive, fair way."

Even some panel members have admitted to second thoughts about the process. Garcia, at the panel's final meeting last week, said the panel did not do enough to reach out to arts organizations, especially those representing minorities.

A funding juggernaut

The Legacy Amendment, approved by voters in 2008, raised the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent for its exclusive causes. Even in the depths of a recession, the amendment will yield $228 million this year -- a figure that could grow to $5.7 billion over its 25-year lifespan.

Other arts panel beneficiaries include the Freeborn County Historical Society, one of the smallest organizations represented on the panel, which last month received $6,954 to acquire newspapers on microfilm. Garcia's Duluth Children's Museum will get $500,000 by 2012.

The environmental portion of proceeds are governed by the Lessard-Sams Council, with strict ethics language that states that an "organizational conflict of interest'' exists "when a person has an affiliation with an organization that is subject to [council] activities, which presents the appearance of a conflict."

Such strong conflict-of-interest provisions are appropriate, said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who has played a leading role in Legacy money for outdoor projects. "This money doesn't belong to any group. It belongs to Minnesotans."

The arts panel faces a Jan. 15 deadline to report to the Legislature.

No specific control

The arts panel members said they were careful not to openly advocate for their institutions.

"There was certainly some concern that people were going to be territorial, that there might be an attempt to sort of push people out of the funding stream," said Stanley Romanstein, president of the Minnesota Humanities Center, which received $1 million. "I think it was a pretty magical group."

Others are closely watching the panel's work. Joel Halvorson, a program consultant for the Minnesota Planetarium Society, said the jockeying for Legacy money was a "potential kettle of worms. ... [we] just hope that the committee represents all of the assets of the arts," he added.

Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, a key player in the Legacy Amendment legislation, defended the use of arts and heritage groups to shape the long-range plan. "I think that it's correct and proper that the people with the proven record ... develop the framework," said Murphy, who said those already getting Legacy money knew they would not automatically get more. "We didn't have a lot of discussion about conflict," she added.

The legislation dictated some of the panel's makeup, specifying that zoos, children's museums, libraries and other groups be represented. Of the 50 who applied, 13 were chosen by a trio made up of Romanstein; Sue Gens, the Minnesota State Arts Board's executive director, and Andrea Kajer, a deputy director at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Some prominent arts organizations said they were not bothered by the arrangement.

Said Melodie Bahan, a spokesperson for the Guthrie Theater, which was not on the panel: "If you're looking for some sort of controversy ... you're not going to find it."

Rohan Preston contributed to this article. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

SOME RECIPIENTS

• Science Museum of Minnesota, $900,000 over two years, for arts, education and preserving history, cultural heritage.

• Minnesota Public Radio, $2.6 million over two years, to expand radio and Web programming, digitize archives.

• Minnesota Humanities Center, $1 million in 2010 for projects celebrating ethnic identities.

• Duluth Children's Museum, $500,000 over two years, for arts, education and preserving history, cultural heritage

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