Super Bowl LII

‘Tonight Show’ rebate puts focus on Snowbate rules

'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' in Minneapolis
Host Jimmy Fallon from his desk from Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis.
Andrew Lipovsky | NBC File

State officials stressed Thursday they are moving to craft new rules for a film and television production incentive program, while a Republican lawmaker called for legislative scrutiny into a quarter-million-dollar rebate to the "Tonight Show" when it was in Minnesota for the Super Bowl.

Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, said he was bothered to learn of the subsidy in a report from MPR News. The “Tonight Show” accessed incentives through the Minnesota Film and TV Board's Snowbate program. While the NBC late-night show told the state it spent millions on the 2018 episode, it qualified for more than a $266,000 award in return.

State law prohibits rebates to talk shows, but the "Tonight Show" was ultimately deemed a variety show.

West said the fact that some associated with the board were troubled by the arrangement means lawmakers should be, too. 

"We need to really nail down these guidelines so they can't reclassify this show to get funding. That was ridiculous,” West said. “We need to know how much of this gamesmanship is going on.”

West is part of the GOP House minority, so he would have to convince Democratic committee leaders to convene a hearing. “I’m hopeful that House Democrats will hold a hearing on Snowbate so we can discuss adding more program guardrails to ensure this wasteful spending doesn’t happen again,” West said in a news release.

Film Board executive director Melodie Bahan said recently the entity is reworking Snowbate rules, with a goal of releasing new standards this summer. She said the draft guidelines would place a stronger emphasis on economic return to Minnesota, use of local talent and how prominently featured the state is in productions.

“Certainly those will be in place before we begin accepting any applications for this coming fiscal year,” Bahan said of the Snowbate guideline restructuring.

Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House jobs and energy committee, said he plans to call a hearing in February or March when the Legislature is back in session focused on the Tonight Show rebate.

"It makes no sense to give Jimmy Fallon $266,000 when he was coming here anyhow." He said he was a little uncomfortable with the way some board officials searched for a path to provide the rebate. "We're going to have to figure out why they decided to manipulate it and make sure they don't do it again." Mahoney was referring to the classification of the show as a variety show rather than a talk show.

The St. Paul DFLer said he is a supporter of the Snowbate program and it would be a different story if the rebate was the only thing between having the show or not.

Mahoney said he doesn't fault officials from the show for asking to receive an incentive, saying the Tonight show has good lawyers.

The head of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, which has some oversight duties for dollars spent by the Film Board, said the agency takes accountability for use of public money seriously.

“While current law limits DEED’s discretion in approving Snowbate projects, the agency has been working with the Minnesota Film and TV Board over the past few months to tighten up the Snowbate program,” said Commissioner Steve Grove, who took over at DEED in January. “The goal is to ultimately provide additional scrutiny to project eligibility and ensure future Snowbate awards have a greater impact on Minnesota’s economy.”