Park funding debate turns rural vs. urban

Rural and urban state representatives fought over parks and trails money during their first Saturday session of 2011.

Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, accused Twin Cities lawmakers of being “extra greedy.”

Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, fired back that the urban and suburban area provides the state’s economic basis, but is “getting the shaft” when it comes to money returning to her area. “This is the time to defend the metro.”

Westrom retorted that the Twin Cities area has more jobs and other advantages.

“How can you suggest it is fair when we have got 80 of the 87 counties?” Westrom asked. “You have a crumb you throw on the rural areas … and now you want to cut that crumb even more.”

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, stood up for rural Minnesota: “100 percent of food comes from where? Rural Minnesota. 100 percent of shelter comes from rural Minnesota.”

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, did the math and said her Twin Cities area was cheated.

“In total, at least 78 percent of the money will be spent in outstate Minnesota,” she said about the overall bill.

Bill author Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, told Wagenius that his plan is similar to last year’s bill written by Democrats. Besides, he said, “most of the land is outside of the seven-county metro area.”

Much of the four-plus-hour heated argument was about a couple million dollars.

The bill would evenly split parks and trails money with 41 percent to the metro and 41 percent to rural areas next year and 40 percent to each a year later. Regional parks anywhere in the state could apply for the rest of the funding, and rural parks have received much of it in the past.

Urdahl said Saturday’s argument could be a preview of future legislative debates on many topics that split rural and urban Minnesota.

“I tried to forge agreements that took into consideration of all parts of Minnesota,” Urdahl said.

The $449 million the bill would spend comes from a sales tax increase Minnesotans approved in 2008 for outdoors, clean water, culture and arts programs.

Overall, the bill, which passed 86-45 Saturday night, would spend $93 million on outdoor heritage programs, $178 million to clean the state’s water, $77 million on parks and trails and $101 million on arts and culture programs.

For the arts and culture spending, the state would administer a competitive grant program. That the major difference with the Senate bill, which earmarks money for specific projects.

House and Senate versions of the bill now head to negotiators.

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