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Legislative spending priorities skewed

The buzz in the hallways and committee rooms of the Minnesota Capitol during the first few weeks of the legisla-tive session has been fo-cused on health care for the poor and jobs for unem-ployed con-struction workers.

What has not been men-tioned is the huge increase in spending for one area of the budget, expen-ditures that many Minneso-tans would view as a luxury but not a necessity in these difficult economic times.

As the poorest Minnesotans face losing health care coverage and proposals to reduce spending for almost every state program are be-ing discussed under the mar-ble dome, one area with pro-posed and relatively unnotic-ed additional state resources amounting to tens of millions of dollars is ... the arts.

Yes, with the state facing a $1.2 billion budget deficit and Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposing funding reductions to cities that are threatening layoffs of police and fire personnel, the arts community stands to gain millions in taxpayer dollars.

Just a week ago at 1 a.m., a House-Senate conference committee concluded its work on a billion-dollar bonding bill that exceeds Minnesota's guidelines on total state debt. In less than 24 hours, both bodies approved the package of construction projects.

Before the vote was taken, the governor stated he would veto the entire bill, at least this first version, when it reached his desk. In addition to the fact that the price tag of the bonding bill is too large, another key reason for his pending veto is the misplaced priorities within the bill.

While Gov. Pawlenty's bonding requests for state prisons, emergency operations and veterans go unfunded, the Legislature came up with $45 million for various arts projects.

The list of projects includes: $16 million for Minneapolis Orchestra Hall; $16 million for St. Paul's Ordway Center; $5 million for the Chatfield Potter Center for the Arts; $5 million for St. Paul's Asian Pacific Cultural Center; and $2 million for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

In addition to the arts pro-jects listed above, the billion-dollar bonding bill passed by the Legislature also included $60 million for civic centers in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud, not to mention $32.5 million for zoos.

The arts and entertainment money in the bonding bill approaches nearly $150 million. But this arts-spending splurge doesn't stop with the bonding bill.

Remember the constitutional amendment in 2008 that added more than $220 million a year that Minnesotans pay in increased sales tax? Legacy sales tax dollars for 2010 will be $228 million. The arts and cultural heritage share is 19.75 per-cent, or $45 million in 2010.

That $45 million is on top of the general fund appro-priation of $19 million passed last year by the Legislature for the State Arts Board.

But arts funding doesn't just come from the state-local government and federal dollars also flows into arts programs and construction. Last year, the State Arts Board received more than $300,000 in federal stimulus money, and the city of Minneapolis contributed more than $2 million in federal stimulus dollars to the Schubert Theater renovation project.

In addition to one-time federal stimulus money, there's the annual appropriation of the National Endowment for the Arts. However, while the debate about government funding of the arts has raged on for years and will continue long into the future, this is not my fundamental issue.

The key point is spending priorities.

During my chairmanship of the State Government Finance Committee in the House in 1999, I worked to increase funding for the State Arts Board. I believe a strong arts community is important to our state, and I think continued spending on arts programs is needed.

The issue is, how much is enough?

This session, state lawmakers have failed to set priorities. The state's cash reserves are dwindling and our credit rating is in jeopardy-I'd say it's time to focus on the necessary, not the nice.

As Minnesota families and businesses cut out luxury items and even basic wants, it's time for our elected offic-ials to do the same. Health care for the poor should come before sculpture gardens, vet-eran's homes before volleyball centers, and police and fire---- yyfighters before zoos.

Arts spending is a nice but not a core function of state and local government.

It's time for the Legislature to wake up to the fact that Minnesota is in a fiscal crisis and that funding of arts and entertainment (that includes professional sports) is not a priority.

Lawmakers need to get ready and get going on spending our money only on the key functions of state government.

Phil Krinkie is a former Republican state representative from Lino Lakes and the president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.