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Lawmakers try to play straight with Legacy proceeds

ST. PAUL -- It is temping to use newly available sales tax money to help plug a nearly $1 billion state budget deficit, but arts and outdoors groups who are getting the money say legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are trying to play by the rules.

With a $5 billion budget deficit projected for the upcoming biennium, those organizations say they expect their oversight has just begun.

The Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment voters approved in November 2008 forbids funds from a sales tax increase dedicated to outdoors and arts causes from replacing "traditional sources of funding for these purposes."

Outdoors cuts so far "seem to be proportional overall to cuts in other agencies," said Dave Dempsey of Conservation Minnesota.

After Pawlenty's line-item vetoes to the public works funding bill took out more non-conservation projects than conservation-related ones, the percentage of dollars dedicated to outdoor projects was even higher than typically seen over the last decade, he said.

But a study the organization conducted concluded that when the budget gap grows starting next year "the governor and Legislature will be seriously challenged to ensure that reductions to conservation agencies are proportionate and that legacy funds are not used to backfill cuts."

The group saw warning signs this year, too, Dempsey said, including Pawlenty's original 2010 proposed budget cut to the Natural Resources Fund and Environmental Fund.

Arts and culture organizations also are watching, and not happy with all they see.

The Minnesota Citizens for the Arts disagrees with a Pawlenty proposal that would decrease funding to the Minnesota State Arts Board, eventually turning it into a non-profit.

"We would view that as an unconstitutional supplanting," said Executive Director Sheila Smith, adding that the Legislature doesn't seem to have an appetite for that move.

Smith said lawmakers thus far have kept proposed cuts in roughly the same range as with other agencies.

Lawmakers say they understand the concerns, though some debate whether the amendment applies public works projects or just operating budgets. Early in the legislative session there was discussion of reducing the public works funding bill because of the availability of Legacy funds.

"I'm not sure one is directly related to the other," said Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, at the time.

Lawmakers understand the concerns.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said complaints of replacing existing funds likely will happen occasionally as projects that would have been funded by the Department of Natural Resources or elsewhere are eventually completed with Legacy money instead.

He said colleagues in both parties see following the amendment language as important.

"My own little pledge is to not let that happen," Ingebrigtsen said of using legacy money to replace existing funds.

Dempsey said Conservation Minnesota could not legally challenge disproportionate cuts, but indicated that some environmental groups might.

Former Rep. Phil Krinkie, now president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said he is hoping a current legislator or a legal group challenges the constitutionality of the clause.

Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said he will not lead the legal charge. But "the legal side of me would say that's the right case to be tried in court."

He said most legislators want to follow the amendment's intent, but noted that without Legacy funding, no program would be guaranteed any ongoing funding beyond two-year budget cycles.

Environmentalist David Zentner of Duluth said he hopes court is not necessary. He is proud of how multiple groups are working together so well but also recognizes the fund replacement issue is not going away.

Even if traditional funding does decrease, Zentner said, arts and outdoors groups are better off now than before. He still hopes others continue to watch the issue closely. "The price of victory is eternal vigilance."

Andrew Tellijohn reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.