Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Extra money for outdoors, arts may be budget casualty

St. Paul, Minn. (AP) — A change in Minnesota’s Constitution will
soon mean up to $300 million in new money annually for
conservation, water quality, parks and arts programs _ and that’s
on top of what those programs already receive from the state
budget. Or is it?

With lawmakers trying to address a $4.8 billion budget deficit,
the groups that fought for last year’s amendment are reminding them
of a stern provision in the new law: The new money must not simply
substitute for traditional sources of funding.

But what that means depends on whom you ask.

Conservation and arts groups say Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s budget
proposes cuts to those programs that are disproportionately harsh
and don’t abide by the wording in the amendment.

Pawlenty’s response: Outdoors and the arts will get more money
than they’ve ever had, and during a budget crisis job-creating
programs get priority. Pawlenty doesn’t interpret the amendment to
mean funding can never be reduced in those programs, spokesman
Brian McClung said.

It will take years to know the true effect the amendment will
have on the state budget for everything from water quality testing
to boards that grant money to arts and cultural organizations.
Still, groups here and across the country are watching Minnesota’s
every move.

“It is a bellwether for just how are lawmakers and governors
going to react in these tough economic times in terms of these
conservation programs,” said Russ Shay, director of public policy
at the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance, a national
organization that celebrated when Minnesota voters approved the
measure.

The amendment gives the outdoors a third of the new sales tax
money, and another third goes to a clean water fund. Parks and
trails will get a little more than 14 percent, with the rest going
to arts and cultural programs.

Pawlenty’s budget would cut the Department of Natural Resources
and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency more than some agencies,
like Administration and Agriculture, and even boost funding for
Public Safety and Veterans Affairs.

McClung said agencies like the DNR need less general fund money
because they collect money from licenses and other sources.

But advocates said the overall budget share for conservation
programs would shrink from about 1.2 percent to just under 1
percent in Pawlenty’s budget.

“That is a historical low,” said Paul Aasen, advocacy director
at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

In other states, ballot measures have often created dedicated
funding sources that end up replacing the general fund conservation
money, which can shrink or disappear when state or local officials
scramble to fund schools and public safety in bad economic times,
according to a group that tracks such measures.

It’s uncommon for ballot measures on conservation to supplement
regular government funding, and it shows how dedicated Minnesota is
to preserving the outdoors, said Matthew Zieper, national research
director for the Trust for the Public Land, a land conservation
group.

In Missouri, where a conservation sales tax has been in effect
since 1977, the state Department of Conservation gets about 60
percent of its funding from the sales tax. Federal money and funds
from fishing and hunting licenses pay for the rest. In the 1980s, a
second sales tax was added to pay for state parks and soil
conservation.

Dave Murphy, executive director of the Conservation Federation
of Missouri, said that before the sales tax, the conservation
department relied only on fees and federal funds and never on
general state money. He called Minnesota’s constitutional amendment
a “bold initiative,” but he said he won’t be surprised if regular
funding for the outdoors eventually dries up in Minnesota.

“My guess is that general revenue appropriations will go away.
I’d be astonished if it would be possible to go on with continued
appropriations,” Murphy said.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, a Democrat from St. Paul, acknowledged that
figuring out the meaning of “traditional funding sources” will be
difficult. But she said she’ll be watching any cuts carefully to
make sure lawmakers are following the amendment’s intent.

“We can’t use this money as an excuse to cut budgets,” said
Anderson, who heads the Senate’s finance committee for the
environment.

Sen. Tom Bakk, a Democrat from Cook who opposed the amendment,
said he’s concerned Minnesota has opened the door to other groups
who might try to use the Constitution to get their own dedicated
funding sources. “Why wouldn’t they? Every interest group has got
their little piece of the budget they want to protect,” he
said.

When Minnesota’s final budget comes out later this year, people
may not take issue with cuts to conservation when things like
health care and local government aid are being cut, too. But if
conservation advocates challenge the funding allocations, they’ll
use last November’s election to make their case.

“Citizens in Minnesota clearly voted to add money to these
programs,” Aasen said.

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