By Don Davis
The moose population in northern Minnesota’s forests is dwindling, but a tax that voters raised in 2008 could help save the giants.
“All of us came together on this project, Minnesota Moose Collaborative, to do what we know would work for one element to improve the moose’s existence: improving habitat,” President Mark Johnson of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association said.
The $3 million the organization has received is being used to clear areas of forest of brush, some of which was 20 feet tall, to make way for better grazing areas. It also is being used to plant trees to give shade from the warm summer sun.
“From a moose’s standpoint, it is like we renewed the buffet,” Johnson said.
“Buffet” may be a good way to describe where the moose project received its funding, because like a food buffet gives a diner lots of options, a large variety of funding opportunities came in the “legacy amendment” voters approved in 2008.
In what is known as the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Minnesota voters approved a constitutional change to increase the state income tax three-eighths of a percent. In the first six years of funding, including money legislators approved this spring, about $1.5 billion has been split among four funds: outdoor heritage, clean water, parks-trails and arts-cultural.
Revenue voters raised in 2008 provides money for projects as varied as $334 so the Becker County Historical Society could microfilm newspapers to $36 million for one of several projects to protect the state’s forests.
Nearly 10,000 projects have received funding from the state funding buffet.
The amendment requires that all money be spent on things the state otherwise would not fund. The sales tax increase ends after 25 years.
In the program’s sixth year, which is just beginning, $378 million is being spent on projects that otherwise would not have received money.
Pam Aakre, a Clay County Fair Board member, credits a mural painted on the back of the grandstand to the funds.
“We would not have been able to do it without legacy funds,” she said, a comment heard across Minnesota from funding recipients.
A handful of other states have looked into expanding outdoors-related spending, and a few did by raising taxes, but Minnesota lawmakers found they needed to include money for arts and culture projects, such as theaters and artwork, for the measure to get enough legislative votes. The amendment faced relatively mild opposition once in front of voters, and indications are it passed mostly to boost outdoors program spending.
“Minnesotans feel so strongly about our great outdoors, when given the choice they are willing to pay for it,” Executive Director Brett Feldman of the Minnesota Parks and Trails Council said.
And it happened during a recession. It allowed Minnesota to increase spending in the four areas at a time when the economy forced other states to cut back.
“I think it is just phenomenal,” state Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said of the first five years.
“We are in the early stages of constructing a house,” Landwehr said, illustrating why he and others think it is too early to declare the legacy amendment a total success.
Those involved with legacy funds generally agree the biggest problem has been geographic balance, especially in parks spending.
“One of the most disappointing aspects to us is our systems had to battle one another for limited resources,” Feldman said about state, greater Minnesota and Twin Cities parks.
Creation of a greater Minnesota parks organization has smoothed things out, but “as long as there is money, there always are going to be battles,” Feldman said.
Minnesotans cannot get a full handle on geographic distribution of the money because most projects cover more than one county and determining how much each county benefits from each project is next to impossible.
Data compiled by the Legislative Coordinating Commission show each of the state’s 87 counties got a piece of the pie, with counties with more people getting more projects.
In northwest Minnesota, Mahnomen County got the fewest projects, 82, while the state’s largest county, Hennepin, led the way with 2,081 projects that used legacy money.
There have been attempts to shift money from urban to rural and vice versa, but the battles have fallen far short of fears. Lawmakers retain final say over how money is spent after committees for each fund make their recommendations.
Some lawmakers, mostly Republicans, question land the state is buying with legacy money, saying it should be left in private hands. Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said that while overall legacy funds are “doing so many great things,” there needs to be more discussion about land purchases.
“How are we going to deal with the cost?” he asked about ongoing expenses such as management and fire protection.
McNamara, Landwehr and others said they worry about the costs of creating new programs and suggested more work needs to be done so budgets do not balloon to take care of legacy projects.
Landwehr worries that the public could expect too much from legacy funds. They cannot solve all problems, he said.
In the clean water arena, for instance, Landwehr said that even though it gets nearly a third of all legacy money, all Minnesota water will not be clean when the legacy program ends in 2034. There are just too many problems with the water, he said.
Even with potential problems, interviews with people involved in legacy funding showed most consider the amendment a huge success. Few naysayers could be found.
The biggest success so far may be spending $36 million to protect large blocks of forest in northern Minnesota ($6 million more came from other sources).
Landwehr called it a “stellar example of a project you never would have seen” without the legacy amendment.
Other forest land near Brainerd and in southeast Minnesota also was protected, and legacy money helped leverage federal funds to clean up land along the St. Louis River near Duluth.
Compared to the forest work, the Worthington International Festival is a small-dollar user of legacy funds.
In past years, the festival often has received $5,000 for the annual mid-July festival.
This year, Rod Sankey, a Worthington City Council member, said he liked the International Festival approach because it offers a venue for Worthington’s diverse residents to mix and mingle.
“I think even more people should come down here because it’s a good way to begin understanding other cultures instead of just having negative attitudes about our diversity,” Sankey said.
Like the International Festival, the Clay County Fair has received smaller legacy grants.
In addition to the $10,250 the fair received for the grandstand mural, it got about $15,000 in two years to bring in singers, square dancers, a puppeteer and artist to offer family activities the fair otherwise could not afford.
“With this money, we are able to spend maybe a little bit more just to get some more quality arts and entertainment,” Aakre said.
Reporter Jane Moore contributed to this story.
Projects, spending per fund
Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, 7,345; $317 million
Clean Water Fund, 1,233; $533.9 million
Outdoor Heritage Fund, 141; $533.4 million
Parks and Trails Fund, 238; $228.9 million
Subject of projects
Arts access, 5,113
Biological diversity, 121
Cultural heritage preservation, 1,409
Education outreach, 2,269
Historic preservation, 270
Natural areas and habitat, 284
Legacy spending by county
Big Stone, 124
Blue Earth, 446
Crow Wing, 270
Lac qui Parle, 123
Lake of the Woods, 108
Le Sueur, 265
Mille Lacs, 144
Otter Tail, 294
Red Lake, 82
St. Louis, 809
Yellow Medicine, 119
Minnesotans entering their sixth year of a fund that pays for a variety of outdoor projects have some advice for their North Dakota neighbors who this fall may decide to implement a similar fund: Work out spending details early.
One of the few major problems encountered in launching the Minnesota legacy fund, with money coming from a sales tax increase, was vague language about how parks and trails money may be spent. That issue only arose following a mostly harmonious campaign to get the constitutional amendment passed.
“One of the lessons that was learned in Minnesota is if you don’t identify and advance the process on allocating funds, you will have a lot of agreement before the ballot (vote), but a bloodbath after the ballot,” Minnesota Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said.
While the constitutional amendment Minnesota voters approved in 2008 specifically divided the new tax money among four funds — outdoor heritage, clean water, parks-trails and arts-culture — it left specifics alone, which became an issue when it came to the $30 million to $40 million parks and trails receive each year.
The feeling before the 2008 vote was “we will play nice in the sandbox,” Landwehr said about parks and trails advocates. “Now it is this annual bloodbath among the metro (Twin Cities) parks, the regional parks and the state.”
The addition of a commission to look after park interests outside the Twin Cities has helped, the commissioner said, since state and Twin Cities parks already had organizations.
A broad-based coalition opposing the North Dakota amendment touches on the issue: “This measure would commit 5 percent of North Dakota’s oil extraction tax — at least $300 million per biennium — to a new massive conservation fund with no clear idea of how the money would be spent.”
The amendment North Dakotans will consider is different from the Minnesota one in several ways.
Most importantly, the Minnesota fund divvies up the new sales tax money four ways: 33 percent to clean water, 33 percent to outdoor heritage, 19.75 percent to arts and cultural heritage projects (something not included in the North Dakota proposal) and 14.25 percent to parks and trails.
The Minnesota Legislature has final say over spending money, but various boards made recommendations, which lawmakers generally follow. In North Dakota, a 13-member citizen board would recommend spending to a commission composed of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, which would have the final spending decisions.
Minnesota Sen. Tom Saxhaug, D-Grand Rapids, said he knows a bit about the North Dakota issue, which “seems to have a much more organized campaign against it than we did.” The opposition coalition includes members from farm, business, local government and energy organizations.
Saxhaug, Landwehr and others suggested that one thing North Dakotans should consider is how to fund ongoing operating costs after the state buys more land and starts programs with the new money. Such costs usually fall into the regular state budget, which may not be able to take on the added costs.
But President Mark Johnson of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association had just one bit of advice: “North Dakota, jump on it.”
Johnson said that despite what many people think, “if they wait 20 years, the money is not going to be there. … If they want to keep their standard of living, from a natural resources standpoint, now is when they need to be doing it.”
‘Legacy’ has different meanings
Minnesota and North Dakota may be neighbors, but they do not always speak the same language.
In Minnesota, “legacy fund” means revenue from an increase in the state sales tax that voters approved in 2008. The money goes to outdoors, clean water, parks, trails, arts and culture programs.
In North Dakota, voters approved a measure in 2009 they know as the “legacy fund” to use revenues from the state oil and gas tax to build up a budget reserve in case it is needed for any reason in the future. The state calls its proposed constitutional change, similar to the Minnesota 2008 one, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment.
The “legacy amendment” usually is blended with other money to fund nearly 10,000 projects around Minnesota.
One of the most complex projects fell on the shoulders of Myron Jesme, Red Lake Watershed District director in northwestern Minnesota, to implement. He cobbled nearly $12 million from about a dozen federal, state and local sources to fix problems caused in 1904 when a straight channel was cut to replace six miles of the meandering Grand Marais Creek from near Fisher to the Red River.
Jesme said that about $3 million in legacy money was the key, especially a $2.32 million allotment from the outdoor heritage fund.
“We needed this $2.32 million to put the gas in the car and start driving,” Jesme said. “Once we got that money, the federal government came in.”
Other agencies began joining the project, too. Each has its own reason, but combined they are funding flood reduction, erosion control, water quality improvement and habitat restoration along the creek.
After a multiyear effort, the hope is to have water flowing through the original channel by year’s end, keeping the shorter straight channel for flood relief when that is needed. Putting water through a curvy creek will keep 700 tons of sediment out of the Red River each year.
Restoring the last six miles of the 45-mile-long Grand Marais Creek has many benefits, Jesme said, by returning aquatic and related ecological systems to how they were before the 1904 channel was changed.
Legacy money often provides the seed funds to attract other projects. In that way, it is like the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. That fund has nothing to do with the legacy amendment, but it gets a lot of attention on a Web page otherwise devoted to legacy funds and has been around longer than the legacy amendment.
The Legislative Coordinating Commission reports that the fund, which gets revenue from the Minnesota Lottery, attracts nearly as many page visits as its legacy home page. The arts and cultural heritage fund gets about a third of the page visits, slightly more than a page about the clean water fund.
The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, which recommends to lawmakers how to spend the lottery money, recently compiled a $45.8 million list of 64 projects for consideration next year.
The list includes items ranging from a University of Minnesota research center aimed at slowing the spread of invasive plants and animals to researching animals including bats, turtles, elk, loons and white pelicans to improve preservation efforts.
Such projects are similar to some of the outdoors-related ones that get legacy money, and the two pots of revenue often are confused.
Here are some examples of projects at least partially funded by legacy money:
— Becker County Historical Society, $334, to add 12 rolls of microfilmed newspapers to broaden public accessibility to primary records.
— Goodhue Soil and Water Conservation District, $105,450, to construct seven grade stabilization structures in Minneola Township to reduce erosion and sedimentation to North Fork of Zumbro River, protect public roads, retain water, create wildlife habitat and increase groundwater recharge.
— Stevens County Water Quality Initiative, $84,000, to establish up to 12 miles of buffers along the Pomme de Terre River and its tributaries and install up to five rain gardens within the cities of Morris and Chokio.
— Clay County Fair, $10,250, to create a mural on the back of the grandstand that embodies the activities and spirit of the Clay County Fair.
— Friends of Lake Bronson State Park (Kittson County), $5,050, for the Woodcarvers’ Festival.
— Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District, $329,750, to improve the water quality of Little Buffalo Creek, a tributary to the Mississippi River.
— City of Kandiyohi, $6,114, to install new doors and windows to the well house, purchase and install six wellhead protection signs.
— Farmington Elementary School, $13,603, for all students at Farmington Elementary to work with artists using the European and American folk song and dance, Ghanaian drumming, West African dance and puppetry.
— Beltrami County Historical Society, $6,896, for Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News: Early Healthcare, an exhibit on early county health care drawn from primary records in local and state repositories.
— Minnesota Public Television Association, $6.2 million, for production and to buy programs.
— Minnesota Discovery Center (St. Louis County), $4,829, to create an exhibit on the history of the Iron Range as told through personal narrative of 10 residents.
— Nobles Soil and Water Conservation District, $22,346, to test waters needing data for impairment listing in the Rock River and Little Sioux watersheds.
— University of Minnesota, $4.4 million, to establish an aquatic invasive species research center to fight species such as Asian carp and zebra mussels.
— Park Rapids, $8,058, to test wells water and aquifer.
— Boys and Girls Club of Morrison County, $4,500, to invite a resident artist and arts educator, Jodi Legeros, to conduct fine arts programs at the Little Falls club location.
— Carlos Township in Douglas County, $28,000, to evaluate alternatives to fix failing sewage treatment systems.
— Wadena-Deer Creek School District, $11,836, to create works of art and learn creative problem solving strategies.
— Cottage Grove, $6,500, for spill response plan and well survey.
— Woodbury, $10,000, for well site study, ordinance review and public education.
— Dakota County Historical Society, $6,183, for 20 interviews about the history of the Hastings State Hospital, 1938-78.
— Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District, $130,055, to develop the watershed restoration and protection, while also enlarging and sustaining public participation.