Voters pass outdoors, arts constitutional amendment

A broad array of outdoors groups fought for the amendment. In fact, they've been working on it for ten years.

This year they joined forces with advocates for the arts, and both camps campaigned hard around the state.

They pointed to declining investments in clean water and wildlife habitat and disproportionate cuts in arts funding during hard budget times.

Former State Sen. Bob Lessard, DFL-International Falls, fought for funding for outdoor projects for years.

"Never even showed up as a sliver in a pie chart. We were competing against education, health and human services, all good things, but it never could rise to the top, and it never will with the Legislature, and that's why the constitutional route became the only way that I could see, and let the people decide whether we would leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren," said Lessard.

The Legislature did vote to put the amendment on the ballot, and it also set up a citizens group to oversee the money. They called it the Lessard Outdoors Heritage Council. A lot of Minnesotans, especially in the northern part of the state, didn't want the money to go to the Department of Natural Resources.

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Gary Leaf, Executive Director of Sportsmen for Change, says it's important for ordinary people to serve on the oversight council and to work on projects.

"There's a grants component, where people out in the field, in towns around Minnesota can raise some money and get a matching grant to do projects locally, so there's lot of involvement that can be done throughout the state," said Leaf.

The money is to be used to clean up lakes and rivers, restore wetlands, put forest and prairie land in conservation and upgrade parks and trails.

Don McMillan is president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance.

"And this is a long range plan. It's not going to happen quickly. Probably not in my lifetime, but maybe in my children and my grandchildren's lifetime it will happen. So we'll bring back the habitat and the wetlands to a state that was enjoyed here maybe 80, 90, 100 years ago," said McMillan.

The money for the arts will be spread around the state too: theater in Lanesboro, the symphony orchestra in Duluth and arts centers in communities large and small.

Sheila Smith directs Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. She says a big chunk of the arts money will go to the State Arts Board, to be distributed to regional arts councils, which support local groups.

"If you look at any county, you're going to find small to large arts organizations serving the people of those areas, and this will, especially in these tough economic times, help them survive, and I think that's really important," said Smith.

Organized opposition to the amendment came from the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. The group argued that it's legislators' responsibility to decide how to spend tax money, and that the amendment sets a dangerous precedent, perhaps encouraging other interests to try for something similar.

Representatives could not be reached for comment.