Minnesota can claim some new bragging rights since Monday’s passage of the funding for the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.
Bragging right No. 1: The 187,277-acre Upper Mississippi Forest Project is believed to be the largest private-land conservation effort in state history and among the largest in the nation, according to Tom Duffus, Upper Midwest director for The Conservation Fund. The project is receiving a $36 million appropriation.
Bragging right No. 2: The $21.65 million first-year appropriation for the Minnesota State Arts Board, combined with about $8.62 million from the general fund, not only triples the board’s annual budget of recent years, but it also could catapult Minnesota to No. 2 in state government arts funding. Minnesota ranked No. 10 in 2009 appropriations behind New York (No. 1) and Puerto Rico (No. 2), according to a ranking from the National Association of State Art Agencies. (PDF)
“Other than the fact the [state] budget is destroyed, it’s a happy day,” state Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said Tuesday. Cohen, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has been a key author of Legacy Amendment legislation through the years and longtime advocate for public funding for the arts. The destruction he refers to is the overall state budget undergoing line-item vetoes by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
While legislators were unable to come up with a tax-hike-free state budget to satisfy the governor, they passed the Omnibus Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Bill on a 103-31 vote in the House of Representatives and 67-0 in the Senate. The legislation, which awaits the governor’s signature, lays out how $481 million in new sales-tax revenue will be spent over the 2010-2011 biennium for clean water, the outdoors, and arts and cultural heritage. About $400 million will be spent in the next two years, with the rest set aside as reserves in case tax-revenue forecasts fall short. The two biggest chunks of money go to clean-water and outdoor-heritage efforts.
Bill Becker, acting executive director of the newly renamed Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, called passage of the legacy funding a “historic moment” because of the largest single appropriations ever for a variety of outdoor causes.
“What was the most pleasing thing to me is there’s no pork in this appropriation,” said Becker. “It goes to sound programs that have been around for a long, long time, that are run by professional resource managers who vet all opportunities and make sure the money is applied to the best possible project. … That’s a real key to achieving what the voters were looking for [when they passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in November].
“It’s a significant quantum leap up in the preservation and conservation of resources.”
Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota, which lobbied for the amendment, said the funding legislation “has achieved much of what we wanted to achieve in water funding, which is critical; and it accepted the recommendations of the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council, which were balanced and well-done.” The council is now named after former legislators Bob Lessard and the late Dallas Sams, both of whom worked hard for the dedicated funding.
The Upper Mississippi Forest Project, said Austin, is a “great marquee item to have happen right out of the box and hopefully it will be followed by 24 years of similar projects.”
The project, which includes forest land owned and worked by UPM Blandin Paper Co., is spread across seven counties — with the largest portions in Itasca, Koochiching and St. Louis counties. The city of Grand Rapids is at the center.
The easement “includes 280 miles of lake, stream and river frontage … and it includes 60,000 acres of wetlands in very pristine condition,” said Duffus, whose organization is contributing $9 million in private funding for the easement. “It’s about habitat, it’s about access; it’s about jobs.”
The agreement allows UPM Blandin to continue working the land for forest products and to keep 3,200 people employed there, but prohibits developing and subdividing the land by future owners. Hundreds of other workers — from hunting and fishing guides to loggers and motel operators — are dependent on the area for their livelihoods.
“It dramatically increases the land available for public recreation in Minnesota, and it’s almost the same size as the existing state park system,” Duffus said.
Dedicated funding for quality-of-life efforts
Sen. Cohen, who co-chaired the conference committee for the funding bill, said he believes there’s a “fair balance between competing environmental interests,” whether they’re duck hunters or bird watchers. The big picture, he said, is that quality-of-life efforts now have dedicated funding.
“Even if you had lots of money and large surpluses, you still have to get past K-12 education funding, public safety. … Environmental kinds of programs, and arts and cultural programs would never see more than nickel-dime type increases, so this allows for some significant funding. … I’ve been looking for a stable funding source for public support for the arts since 1991.”
With state-agency arts budgets getting chopped across the nation during the recession, Minnesota stands out from the crowd despite a cut in general funding to $8.6 million in 2010 from about $10 million annually in recent years.
One of the widest funding gaps between the Senate and the House legislation was for the Minnesota State Arts Board, which distributes money to regional arts councils, artists and arts groups across the state. The Senate proposed the board receive 50 percent of the dedicated arts and cultural funding, and the House thought 17 percent was enough, choosing to distribute the money to several entities. The final appropriation gives the board almost 49 percent of the money.
“We knew they would pass a bill, but we were very worried the money was going to be diverted” from arts to other areas, said Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. “The real hero of this is Senator Cohen. He chaired the conference committee and was tenacious that the outcome was close to the goal.”
$500,000 for youth civics education
The House managed to hold onto $500,000 in funding for civics education projects for youth, which arts proponents had questioned. Another point of contention for Smith and followers was funding for the zoos. While the House had proposed $4 million for cultural programming for Minnesota zoos over the biennium, the final legislation leaves $900,000.
All part of the give-and-take of compromise, it appears.
“I think we’ll need to continue to be vigilant,” Smith said about fighting for arts funding over the 25-year life of the Legacy Amendment. “What this year taught us is that some people are happy to redefine culture in a million ways. We need to make sure Minnesotans’ voices are heard.”
All in all, she’s pleased with the first round of appropriations.
“The exciting thing is that Minnesotans in every corner of the state are going to have greater access to the arts, which was the goal all along,” she said.
Casey Selix, a news editor and staff writer for MinnPost, can be reached at cselix[at]minnpost[dot]com.