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2008 amendment offers buffet of outdoors, arts funds

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ST. PAUL — The moose population in northern Minnesota’s forests is dwindling, but a tax that voters raised in 2008 could help save the giants.

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“All of us came together on this project, Minnesota Moose Collaborative, to do what we know would work for one element to improve the moose’s existence: improving habitat,” President Mark Johnson of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association said.

The $3 million the organization has received is being used to clear forest areas of brush, some of which was 20 feet tall, to make way for better grazing areas. It is also being used to plant trees to give shade from the warm summer sun.

“From a moose’s standpoint, it is like we renewed the buffet,” Johnson said.

“Buffet” may be a good way to describe where the moose project received its funding, because like a food buffet gives a diner lots of options, a large variety of funding opportunities came in the “legacy amendment” voters approved in 2008.

In what is known as the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Minnesota voters approved a constitutional change to increase the state income tax three-eighths of a percent. In the first six years of funding, including money legislators approved this spring, about $1.5 billion has been split among four funds: outdoor heritage, clean water, parks-trails and arts-cultural.

Revenue voters raised in 2008 provides money for projects as varied as $334 so the Becker County Historical Society could microfilm newspapers to $36 million for one of several projects to protect the state’s forests.

Nearly 10,000 projects have received funding from the state funding buffet.

The amendment requires that all money be spent on things the state otherwise would not fund. The sales tax increase ends after 25 years.

Pam Aakre, a Clay County Fair Board member, credits a mural painted on the back of the grandstand to the funds.

“We would not have been able to do it without legacy funds,” she said, a comment heard across Minnesota from funding recipients.

A handful of other states have looked into expanding outdoors-related spending, and a few did by raising taxes, but Minnesota lawmakers found they needed to include money for arts and culture projects, such as theaters and artwork, for the measure to get enough legislative votes. The amendment faced relatively mild opposition once in front of voters, and indications are it passed mostly to boost outdoors program spending.

And it happened during a recession. It allowed Minnesota to increase spending in the four areas at a time when the economy forced other states to cut back.

“I think it is just phenomenal,” state Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said of the first five years.

“We are in the early stages of constructing a house,” Landwehr said, illustrating why he and others think it is too early to declare the legacy amendment a total success.

Those involved with legacy funds generally agree the biggest problem has been geographic balance, especially in parks spending.

Minnesotans cannot get a full handle on geographic distribution of the money because most projects cover more than one county and determining how much each county benefits from each project is next to impossible.

Data compiled by the Legislative Coordinating Commission show each of the state’s 87 counties got a piece of the pie, with counties with more people getting more projects.

Compared to the forest work, the Worthington International Festival is a small-dollar user of legacy funds.

The festival has often received $5,000 for the annual mid-July festival.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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