Legacy Bill Heads Back For Negotiations

By Andrew Tellijohn

 A bill allocating nearly $450 million in sales tax proceeds to arts, clean water, outdoors and parks and trails projects, went back to negotiators Monday night, leavings its future in question.

The bill, which would have guaranteed $15 million in funding for greater Minnesota parks and trails, was controversial for that provision and because lawmakers had concerns about whether the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council should be subject to the state’s open meetings law.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, suggested sending the bill back to the House-Senate conference committee. After listening to complaints from several lawmakers, Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, who co-chaired the committee, recommended the move.

The so-called legacy bill could come back in the House and Senate late Monday or during a special session.

The parks and trails portion of the sales tax allocation has been contentious since voters approved the sales tax increase in 2008 because greater Minnesota lawmakers say their areas were not receiving a fair share of the proceeds.

This year’s bill dedicated more than $15 million to greater Minnesota parks during the next two years, or 20 percent of the total funds for parks and trails. Previous legacy appropriations did not guarantee any funds for greater Minnesota parks.

“This was the most contentious part of the solution to the whole bill,” Urdahl said. “There are great arguments on both sides.”

Dan Larson, lobbyist for greater Minnesota parks and trails and administrator of the Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus, said he thinks rural areas deserve more money but added that having at least some dedicated funding is an improvement.

“It is much better than it was,” he said.

Another proposal changed the meeting format for the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Meetings still would be open to the public under the bill, but they will function under the rules of the Legislature rather than more stringent open meetings laws.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who co-chaired the committee, said that puts the council on par with other environmental committees that disperse funds. Critics from both parties say it will reduce transparency.

“For the amount of money and for the amount of public interest that they conduct it should all be under the open meeting law,” said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown.

Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said she has several problems with the change, including that it wipes out language passed last year allowing members to exchange information but not discuss decision points while traveling to view different projects.

Overall, the bill puts $179 million toward projects to maintain the state’s clean water and nearly $105 million to arts and cultural heritage. The legacy amendment bill also included $87 million toward outdoors projects and $78 million for parks and trails.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, was critical of a provision in the bill authorizing $1 million for the Children’s Museum of Minnesota while requiring three similar children’s museums in greater Minnesota – and other organizations seeking funds under the arts and heritage portion of the bill – to compete for $1 million in funding through a grant process.

“It really shortchanges these children’s museums,” she said.

Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, criticized the committee for withholding funds allocated from the bill until the overall state budget is settled.

Ingebrigtsen said committee members thought it would be easier to avoid the appearance that legacy funds were being used to replace general budget funds rather than supplement, as required by the legacy amendment.

The legacy bill provides $500,000 that would be put toward the study of safe sulfate levels in waters that contain wild rice. A separate environment budget bill allocates another $1 million for that study along with a proposal that temporarily raises the allowable sulfate level while the study is being conducted.