It could be a lot quieter at the Kitchigami Regional Library's nine branches if state lawmakers adopt a proposal that would make libraries compete for Legacy Amendment money.
The special sales tax money made it possible for the north-central Minnesota library system to spend $540,000 over two years on some 900 programs where Minnesotans interacted with authors, musicians and history buffs in places like Bemidji, Blackduck and Brainerd.
But Kitchigami has no grant writer, and director Marian Ridge said it would be difficult to compete for Legacy money without one.
"I don't know that we could continue to participate," she said, explaining that it wouldn't make sense for the library's small, stretched staff to dedicate much time toward grant applications for programs that often cost just a few hundred dollars.
Minnesota voters in 2008 approved the Legacy Fund constitutional amendment establishing a 3/8ths of a cent sales tax to fund the outdoors, clean water and the arts. About 20 percent of the Legacy fund always goes toward arts and culture, but some lawmakers want to change the way it's distributed amid concerns over accountability and fairness.
Lawmakers will meet in the coming days to finalize proposals to require organizations including libraries, public broadcasters, zoos and museums to compete for grants — a process that's already used for more than half of the arts and culture Legacy funding.
The change could have tremendous implications for libraries and other groups that had hoped to again receive Legacy money.
The Republicans overseeing the House and Senate Legacy committees have defended the plans, saying the new process would be more transparent and would give more organizations a chance to participate.
"Competitive grants, I think, are important," Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said last week as his committee finalized the Senate version of the Legacy bill.
"It removes the feeling of entitlement," said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, who chairs the House Legacy Funding Division.
The way Legacy funding works now is many arts and culture organizations receive direct Legacy appropriations or are given the money through a formula. For example, the Department of Education distributed about $8.5 million to 12 regional library systems in the past two years, based on criteria like population and geography.
Under a competitive grant process, groups apply for money by proposing specific programs or projects. In the case of the libraries, the State Arts Board would set up criteria for the grants, and the best proposals would get funding.
The proposed competitive grant process for libraries is part of the Senate version of the bill. In the House, lawmakers left the process for library funding untouched, and Urdahl said he hopes it stays that way.
The House version establishes a competitive grants process for public broadcasters, museums and zoos, which Ingebrigtsen has said he doesn't like. House and Senate members will settle their differences soon in a conference committee.
EARMARKS OR COMPETITIVE GRANTS?
Despite their differences, lawmakers from both parties have shown interest in initiating a competitive grants process for the arts and culture money.
Politicians here and elsewhere have grown less comfortable with earmarks — legislative proposals that pick specific projects to receive government money.
Accountability has been among the key concerns many state lawmakers cite in debates over the Legacy Amendment, and was one of the top issues they wanted the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor to evaluate. A report on the processes used to distribute Legacy funds and document the results will be released this summer.
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said his office has found problems with earmarks in the past.
"We've strongly favored the competitive grant process across the board, and not just for Legacy funds," Nobles said.
Past evaluations by Nobles' team have found there's little, if any, oversight over performance when state money is earmarked for organizations, he said.
"We just don't think it has the openness and transparency and accountability that public money should have," Nobles said.
Deciding which programs should have a competitive grants process and which should receive earmarks will be worked out for the upcoming biennium, but Ingebrigtsen told Senate Legacy committee members the debate will continue.
"This is a work in progress," said Ingebrigtsen, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee. "If this doesn't work, we'll address it. I think it's just a good idea to keep searching for the best way to put those dollars out."
Still, some DFL lawmakers said Republican leaders' reasons for creating more competitive grant programs had more to do with politics than accountability.
"The reason Republicans are doing it is because they don't want to vote for appropriations to certain organizations," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. "If you look at the rest of the bill, there may be some competitive grants, but there's still a lot of direct appropriations."
EFFICIENCY VS. TRANSPARENCY
Winkler said a competitive grant program makes sense when there's true competition. But some the Legacy grant programs are specifically aimed at categories like zoos, public radio and TV.
Minnesota Public Radio received $2.65 million in Legacy money in the last two years. Because only a few groups in Minnesota are in those categories, Winkler said in those cases, it would be more efficient to allocate the money directly.
"It's certainly going to cost money to put out grant application standards and have people write grant proposals," he said.
Libraries argue the system that allows each region of the state to receive a piece of the Legacy pie without applying for grants is more efficient.
Ridge, the Kitchigami Regional Library director, said the system had the ability to hire authors to appear at many libraries within the same tour. It also paid lower performance rates for musicians because of its ability to book multiple shows, she said.
"It means that someone looking out for available opportunities is not just looking for one library, but many libraries," Ridge said.
Budget shortfalls in cities and counties statewide have led to cuts to public library budgets, which translate into less programming and reduced hours and staff.
Nevertheless, library Legacy money has come under scrutiny this year after some lawmakers criticized the $45,000 that went toward a speaking fee for best-selling author Neil Gaiman.
Money for the libraries this year was reduced by that much in the House, but Senate Legacy leaders said the proposal to require libraries to apply for grants wasn't related to the controversy.
Robin Ewing, president of the Minnesota Library Association, noted that the Metropolitan Library Service Agency imposed a new rule in May 2010, requiring board approval in advance for any program costing more than $15,000. Libraries receiving money must also report back to the Department of Education on how it was spent and what participants or attendees thought of it.
At the same time, Ewing welcomed the Legislative Auditor's inquiry.
"I can definitely see why people say it needs to be competitive," Ewing said. "The issue is that you're dealing with a lot of programs that cost $250 or less. I can't imagine competitive grants being for such small amounts."
Ewing said public libraries are also concerned a competitive grant program would take time to set up — time that could be spent carrying out programs. And there are questions about whether bigger libraries would have an advantage in the grants process.
Peter Pearson, president of the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, said Twin Cities area libraries would likely still be able to offer programs under a competitive grants process. But he worries about libraries in places like northwestern Minnesota, which has some of the smallest libraries in the state.
"It could dramatically change the way people in greater Minnesota get to experience arts and culture," he said.