Legacy funding debate splits urban and rural senators

By Don Davis

Rural and urban Minnesota senators battled Wednesday night about how to divide outdoors and arts program funding.

Rural senators won, but just barely.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said rural Minnesota is “under assault once again” with an amendment by Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, that would have reduced the amount of parks money spent in greater Minnesota by millions of dollars.

“The issue is about equity and fairness,” Eaton said before her amendment failed 33-31.

Once the urban-rule debate ended, the overall bill passed 55-10.

The money is part of $485 million to be spent on outdoors and arts projects across the state. It comes from a sales tax increase voters approved in 2008, setting up the “legacy” funding program.

“This is one of the most controversial issues that crosses party lines,” Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said about rural-urban divisions, adding that there is much more state-owned park land in rural areas.

“We need balance,” Eaton said. “The current bill is not balanced. Members, we are just asking for more fair distribution of legacy money.”

The overall bill divided parks money: 40 percent to Twin Cities parks, 40 percent to rural parks and 20 percent to state parks. Eaton wanted to move it to 43 percent to the Twin Cities, taking it away from rural parks.

Eaton said Twin Cities taxpayers are funding rural parks. “The money is not coming from the rural funds.”

Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, said many Twin Cities residents visit parks in rural areas because the three urban state parks do not offer experiences that can be enjoyed outside the metropolitan area.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that when the legacy constitutional amendment was being discussed in 2008, much of the talk was about a need “to maintain our very, very valuable natural resources.”

Forestry and parks programs are the “stepchildren” of the Department of Natural Resources, Bakk said. “We have a responsibility to preserve them.”

While Bakk said the Twin Cities have plenty of taxes available to pay for parks, urban and suburban lawmakers disagreed.

Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, said residents in his district cannot afford to visit state parks outside the Twin Cities, let alone pay for rural parks.

Legacy bill sponsor Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, was a rare urban opponent of the amendment to spend more funds in the Twin Cities.

Cohen said some of his best memories come from spending time in rural state parks. “I cannot, obviously, get that experience in the Twin Cities.”

The legacy spending plan senators debated Wednesday night would spend $95.6 million on outdoors projects such as conservation. Another $191.2 million would be spent to clean Minnesota’s water — projects such as drinking water protection, monitoring streams and reducing pollution.

Parks and trails would receive $83.5 million in the next two years, while arts and culture projects would get $115 million.

Nearly 100,000 acres would be affected by the legislation, and its funds would pay 47 workers.

Senators unanimously approved a provision to ban out-of-state travel by people funded with money from the arts portion of the legacy program. News stories have reported about expensive trips artists have made to other countries.

A bill that divides legacy money differently than the Senate would already has passed the House, so negotiators likely will try to produce a compromise bill in the next few days.

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