The Minnesota Film & TV Board is facing questions about its effectiveness, a year after the Legislature granted an unprecedented $10 million for its Snowbate incentives program in 2014-15.
The House was moving Wednesday to eliminate funding for the program, which uses tax rebates to draw film productions to Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Senate voted to renew it.
The moves follow a formal evaluation of the film board by Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles’ office, at the request of several legislators.
Nobles challenged the board’s claim that Snowbate generates enough jobs and spending to justify the public money it costs. In fiscal 2014, the report says, 30 productions received $1.2 million in incentives, and spent more than $5.5 million in Minnesota, providing work for nearly 500 state residents.
In an interview, Nobles said the taxes generated by that spending were not enough to offset the program’s cost. “Also, most of the jobs were for 10 days or less,” he said. “From the beginning, the film board said this was a job-creation program, not an arts or cultural heritage program. I’m not sure a few extra days for a lighting technician or cameraperson can give them the ability to stay in their profession.”
In Nobles’ view, the $10 million — Snowbate’s highest funding ever — was pushed through late in the 2014 session without adequate debate.
The report puts the onus on the Legislature to set measurable goals for the film board, which is a private nonprofit organization — a rarity among the more than 35 states that offer film incentives.
“The Legislature has not been clear about its expectations … making state oversight challenging,” the report states.
While the film board once enjoyed a greater degree of bipartisan backing, the Republican-dominated House now includes fewer supporters, said Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who favors the Snowbate program.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, a supporter of film funding who chairs the House Legacy Funding Finance Committee, said he felt the auditor’s evaluation was “fair.” On Wednesday he added a mandate to his Legacy bill to form a task force to set clearer goals for the board. The board receives Legacy funds for a separate program open only to Minnesota filmmakers or Minnesota-themed films.
House members are “so diametrically opposed, it’s hard to predict what will happen to the funding,” Urdahl said.
In the Senate, Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, added two recommendations from the legislative auditor’s report to an omnibus bill, passed Wednesday, that would continue Snowbate funding.
Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, chair of the Senate Finance Committee and staunch champion of Snowbate, said that judging its progress after only one year at the current funding level is “premature. This program has operated in fits and starts for awhile and needs time to see what can happen when there’s consistency.”
Film board executive director Lucinda Winter, said she has “no issues” with the auditor’s key recommendations. She also noted the report’s finding that Minnesota’s $5 million appropriation for 2015 is less than the funding in most states with incentives.
“The film board has been putting Minnesota back on the radar, in terms of marketing and promotion, our connections with [TV] networks and production companies large and small,” she said. Last year, three TV series committed to Minnesota shoots, she said, and are expected to spend a total of $7.2 million in the state.