Legacy deal hinges on rural vs. urban fight over parks money

Lilydale Park
A buck stands in Lilydale Regional Park in St. Paul, a park that received legacy money.
MPR File Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Every two years since voters approved a new sales tax to fund four different causes, state lawmakers representing the Twin Cities metro area have fought with those representing greater Minnesota on how to distribute millions of dollars of parks money.

The fight is alive and well in the last few days of this legislative session as the House and Senate work out their differences in hopes of sending a bill to Gov. Mark Dayton by Monday's adjournment.

A commission charged with coming up with a parks-funding formula recommended that 80 percent of the parks money be split evenly between metro parks and the state park system, and that 20 percent go to regional parks in greater Minnesota. While the Senate adopted those recommendations during its floor vote Wednesday, the House passed a 43-37 split favoring metro parks.

Any hopes that the commission's recommendations would settle the issue once and for all appear to have waned.

"It's the most controversial part," Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said of the parks distribution. "I don't know if that's ever going to go away."

METRO VS. GREATER MINNESOTA

Metro parks received 42 percent of the funding two years ago, when Ingebrigtsen chaired the Senate's Legacy bill. The percentage was 43 percent in 2009. The parks advisory group was formed last year to come up with recommendations, but many metro-area lawmakers weren't happy with the results.

"A lot of us in the metro area don't feel that we were represented in this agreement," Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, told her colleagues Wednesday as she tried amending the Senate's Legacy bill to give metro parks 43 percent of the funding. "This is more than fair."

Lawmakers who live in the metro area have the upper hand in terms of votes: 38 of the 68 senators live in the seven-county metro area, and 70 of the 132 current House members live in the metro. But not all of those metro lawmakers support a higher percentage of park funds for the metro.

Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, is a notable exception, because he oversees the Senate's Legacy bill. He said the parks funding commission was set up through legislation to come up with a solution.

"I thought there was some obligation to follow through with that," Cohen said last week.

The Senate amendment to give metro parks more money failed on a 31-33 vote.

OTHER DIFFERENCES

A conference committee is expected to meet in the coming days to work out a compromise on the parks and trails fund, as well as the other three funds: outdoors, arts and clean water. The constitutional amendment voters approved in 2008 calls for a three-eighths of a cent sales tax, with 33 percent of the money going toward clean water, 33 percent to the outdoors, 19.75 percent toward arts and culture and 14.25 percent for parks and trails.

Outdoors money: The nearly $100 million to be spent in the next year on habitat restoration could also be a point of contention. The outdoors portion of the Legacy Amendment is distributed annually, unlike the other funds, but the House version of the bill appropriates money in both of the next two years and adds several projects in the metro area. The Senate adopted the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council's recommendations.

Arts money: The Senate proposes giving 50 percent of the arts money to the State Arts Board to distribute in the form of grants. The House version gives 41 percent to the State Arts Board. The regional library system and civic education would receive less money than two years ago under the Senate proposal, but Cohen has said those areas can be fully funded using other parts of the state budget. The Senate also adopted an amendment to prohibit any out-of-state travel for arts groups receiving Legacy grants. Lawmakers were concerned about a report showing that some grants distributed by the State Arts Board paid for artists to travel overseas, though the money did not come from Legacy funds.

Clean water: The Senate version of the bill spends less on programs administered by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Department of Health and gives more money to the Board of Water and Soil Resources to distribute for surface and drinking water efforts. The House version boosts the health department's funding to monitor contaminants and other water-related health concerns.

Minnesota Public Radio is slated to receive $3 million from the Legacy's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund in the next two years under the legislation.

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