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Clean water disputes muddy Legacy funding agreement

Rep. Leon Lillie, chair of the House Legacy Finance Division, makes opening comments May 22 as the division has an informational hearing on what is expected to become the omnibus legacy bill. Photo by Paul Battaglia

It all looked pretty clear and relatively uncomplicated when the co-chairs of the Legacy funding conference committee began negotiating their final allocations for the next biennium. They knew how much money they had, and how much was to go to each of the four recipients of Legacy Amendment money.

But the compromise that will be brought to the floors of both chambers when a special session is called has one key area in which Senate members got their way and some House members aren’t happy: the Clean Water Fund.

The Legacy Amendment was voted into law by Minnesotans in 2008. It added a 0.375 percent statewide sales tax to create four funds with specific purposes. The Outdoor Heritage Fund (33 percent of the allocations) protects and restores wetlands, prairies and forests. The Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (19.75 percent) is earmarked for artists and arts organizations, museums, zoos, and history and cultural projects. And the Parks and Trails Fund (14.25 percent) improves that aspect of life in the state.

Then there’s the Clean Water Fund, which receives 33 percent of Legacy dollars. It’s entrusted with maintaining clean water in the state, but there was a lot of dissension between the House and Senate Legacy bills as to how to go about that.

An audience member looks through division documents at a May 22 informational House Legacy Finance Division hearing on the expected omnibus legacy bill. Photo by Paul Battaglia

The biggest difference in Clean Water Fund proposals between the House and Senate bills was that the Senate wanted to allocate $24 million in grants for Soil and Water Conservation District administration, something that didn’t appear in the House bill and remains controversial as to whether it’s an appropriate use of Legacy dollars. The Senate’s suggested funding total survived negotiations intact.

The House bill included $10.5 million for the Department of Health’s “Drinking Water Contaminants of Emerging Concern” program. It instead would receive $3.4 million. The Board of Water and Soil Resources would have received $10 million for “Targeted Wellhead/Drinking Water Protection” instead of the $4 million in the final agreement. And the House wanted $10 million for the Department of Agriculture’s “Forever Green” initiative, which would get $4.3 million under the compromise.

It was clear at Wednesday’s unveiling of the bill to the House Legacy Finance Division that one member was very unhappy about this. A former Clean Water Council member, Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls) grilled Christopher Elvrum, the well management section manager for the Department of Health, about how the department will test for drinking water contaminants.

“There are 25 utilities in the state that use surface water for drinking water,” Wagenius said. “Minneapolis and St. Paul are two of the biggest ones. You don’t test for contaminants at this point. Without this money, how will you be testing and how often?”

Elvrum said that the lottery-funded Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources is also allocating $1 million for contaminant testing. Wagenius cited a fiscal note saying that much more was needed.

“The Crow River was tested for pharmaceuticals,” Wagenius said, “and they found a ton of them. And you haven’t tested for pesticides or any of the new contaminants. … We have all of these systems and you have no idea what’s coming into them and no idea what to look for.”


How the bill breaks down

Here’s how revenue from Legacy-dedicated sales taxes would be distributed to the four funds:

  • $261.26 million for the Clean Water Fund;
  • $139.77 million for the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund;
  • $127.69 million for the Outdoor Heritage Fund (only for fiscal year 2020); and
  • $101.26 million for the Parks and Trails Fund.

[MORE View the spreadsheet here]

The Outdoor Heritage Fund section of the bill echoed the recommendations of the Lessard-Sams Council for restoration and protection of habitats, prairies, wetlands and forests, while the Parks and Trails Fund would be distributed according to its agreed-upon 40-40-20 split: 40 percent for state park trails and recreation areas, 40 percent to parks and trails within the Twin Cities metropolitan area, and 20 percent for parks and trails elsewhere in the state.

The Clean Water Fund’s largest allocation would be the $138.4 million accorded the Board of Water and Soil Resources, with $46.5 million for the Pollution Control Agency and $21.7 million to the Department of Agriculture.

As for the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, the State Arts Board would receive almost half of the biennial funding ($65.7 million), while the Minnesota Historical Society would get $33 million, Minnesota Public Television $8.9 million, the Minnesota Humanities Center $6.4 million, and regional public libraries $5.1 million. Other recipients include the Indian Affairs Council, the Minnesota Zoo, Minnesota Public Radio and the AMPERS system of community radio stations.

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