Legislators eye Legacy Fund to balance budget

By Stephanie Hemphill

Facing a $6.2 billion budget gap, some state legislators are eyeing a tempting pot of money in the state’s Legacy funding, the $548 million in sales tax money dedicated by a constitutional amendment to preserving Minnesota’s natural resource and arts and cultural heritage.

But diverting some of the money to help balance the budget could be difficult. The language in the constitutional amendment clearly states that “the dedicated money under this section must supplement traditional sources of funding for these purposes and may not be used as a substitute.”

The amendment’s wording “ties the hands of the Legislature,” said state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, who originally opposed it. He said the citizen committees that recommend projects for funding “have to understand that the bottom line decisions rest with the Legislature.”

State Sen. Claire Robling, R, Jordan, has asked for a close study of the legal issues involved. As legislators make cuts in essential services like nursing homes, education, and the courts, Minnesotans may think differently about reserving money for clean water and the environment, said Robling, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

“I don’t know if there will be reasonable, calm heads prevailing in understanding why we have to do what we do, or if there will be special interest groups that will be very defensive of their areas,” Robling she said.

Robling said it’s entirely possible backers of Legacy money will file a lawsuit, but she wants to avoid prompting a lawsuit the state would lose, so she intends to approach the issue very cautiously.

Legislators more directly involved in the Legacy funding process say they’re confident the money will be spent strictly as required in the Constitution.

State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, expects some legislators will try to “blur the lines,” by using Legacy arts money to fill holes in public school programs, for example. But Urdahl, chairman of the House Legacy Funding committee, said he intends to stick closely to the constitutional requirement that Legacy money cannot substitute for traditional sources of funding.

Urdahl predicts that — just as in the two previous sessions — the Legislature will make few if any changes in the recommendations of the Lessard-Sames Outdoor Heritage Council.

John Tuma, a lobbyist for Conservation Minnesota, one of the chief backers of the amendment campaign, is among those speaking in committee meetings and trying to educate new legislators about the amendment. He points out that Minnesota spends only 1 or 2 percent of its entire budget on natural resources.

Tuma said legislators are only beginning to realize the enormity of the budget shortfall problem.

“I think in the end they’ll recognize that they’ll be spending a lot of time trying to find a few pennies here in the couch, and that the fight isn’t work it,” he said. “They really have to focus on the bigger problems.”

Reporter Stephanie Hemphill covers the environment for MPR News.