A decade ago, Minnesota voters said yes to a constitutional amendment that increased the sales tax to support the environment and the arts. By a 56-39 percent margin, they wrote a tax hike into law that is expected to raise more than $1.2 billion over 25 years.
Thanks to the Legacy Amendment, arts funding in this state moved to No. 1 in the nation, and thousands of programs and projects have been produced or enhanced. Still, questions continue about whether the funds are being spent appropriately.
A recent report from the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor found that the Minnesota State Arts Board meets most state grants management policies. However, auditors also reported that there is “room for improvement” in complying with grant requirements, aligning the grant process with state regulations, and requiring grantees to provide more details about how funds are spent.
The Arts Board and Legislature should heed those recommendations. It is especially important to have detailed financial accountability about arts funding because of earlier questions and ongoing concerns about the program. Taxpayers need to know that the board is providing transparent, strong oversight for the funding they voted to provide.
The 2008 vote increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent to support wildlife habitat, parks, trails and waterways, and the arts. About 20 percent of the amount raised goes to the Arts Board, which in turn awards grants through 11 regional arts councils around the state.
In 2018, for example, the board gave $23 million to individuals and organizations through 577 grants. After reviewing 125 final reports submitted to the board, auditors determined that grantees should be required to provide more information about how they use the funding. Auditors also said the board should conduct more monitoring visits and do more investigating when questionable spending is identified.
In one example cited in the report, an arts organization said it used a Legacy grant to help cover operating costs to take a production to an Oregon festival, even though the legislation says the funds may not be used outside Minnesota.
“I don’t see the transparency, the devotedness to accountability at a particularly high level with the State Arts Board,” Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, said after lawmakers received the OLA report. The Arts Board has a duty to account for how taxpayer dollars are spent, she continued. “I support their mission, for heaven’s sake, … But I’m disappointed at what appears to me to be a pretty cavalier attitude.”
We’d agree. After the amendment-funded first round of grants in 2009, the Editorial Board questioned whether the board was doling out the money appropriately. Though the organizations do important work, at that time we expressed concerns about whether “arts” recipients designated in the bill should include well-established and funded organizations like zoos, civic education groups and public radio.
To their credit, board officials said they generally support the OLA’s recommendations and will work internally, with regional arts councils and with the Legislature to follow them.
The public should hold the Arts Board and lawmakers accountable for making the needed adjustments.