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Extra dollars for outdoors, arts raises some questions

A change in the state constitution will provide extra funding to outdoors and conservation projects. West Central Tribune, Willmar, Minn., file photo

ST. PAUL -- A change in Minnesota's Constitution will soon mean up to $300 million in new money annually for conservation, water quality, parks and arts programs -- and that's on top of what those programs already receive. Or is it?

With lawmakers trying to address a $4.8 billion budget deficit, the groups that fought for the amendment are reminding them of a provision in the law: The new money must not simply substitute traditional funding.

But what that means depends on whom you ask.

Conservation and arts groups say Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget proposes cuts to those programs that are disproportionately harsh and don't abide by the wording in the amendment.

Pawlenty's response: Outdoors and the arts will get more money than they've ever had, and during a budget crisis job-creating programs get priority. Pawlenty doesn't interpret the amendment to mean funding can never be reduced in those programs, spokesman Brian McClung said.

It will take years to know the true effect the amendment will have on the state budget for everything from water quality testing to boards that grant money to arts and cultural organizations. Still, groups here and across the country are watching Minnesota's every move.

The amendment gives the outdoors a third of the new sales tax money, and another third goes to a clean water fund. Parks and trails will get a little more than 14 percent, with the rest going to arts and cultural programs.

Pawlenty's budget would cut the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency more than some agencies, like Administration and Agriculture, and even boost funding for Public Safety and Veterans Affairs.

McClung said agencies like the DNR need less general fund money because they collect money from licenses and other sources.

But advocates said the overall budget share for conservation programs would shrink from about 1.2 percent to just under 1 percent in Pawlenty's budget.

"That is a historical low," said Paul Aasen, advocacy director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

In other states, ballot measures have often created dedicated funding sources that end up replacing the general fund conservation money, which can shrink or disappear when state or local officials scramble to fund schools and public safety in bad economic times, according to a group that tracks such measures.

It's uncommon for ballot measures on conservation to supplement regular government funding, and it shows how dedicated Minnesota is to preserving the outdoors, said Matthew Zieper, national research director for the Trust for the Public Land, a land conservation group.

In Missouri, where a conservation sales tax has been in effect since 1977, the state Department of Conservation gets about 60 percent of its funding from the sales tax. Federal money and funds from fishing and hunting licenses pay for the rest. In the 1980s, a second sales tax was added to pay for state parks and soil conservation.

Dave Murphy, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, said that before the sales tax, the conservation department relied only on fees and federal funds and never on general state money. He called Minnesota's constitutional amendment a "bold initiative," but he said he won't be surprised if regular funding for the outdoors eventually dries up in Minnesota.