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House passes omnibus legacy bill

Rep. Leon Lillie, chair of the House Legacy Finance Committee, watches the vote total for the omnibus legacy finance bill on a large TV set up in the back of the House Chamber for visual aid during largely remote floor sessions. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Minnesotans undertook a unique experiment in 2008 when they voted to have the statewide sales tax raised by 0.375%, with the proceeds committed to clean water, the preservation of natural areas, enhancing parks and trails, and funding the arts and cultural programming. The agreement was to give it 25 years and see how it went.

Now the state is halfway through that experiment, and how those tax proceeds should be allocated is the focus of HF1079, the omnibus legacy finance bill. Sponsored by Rep. Leon Lillie (DFL-North St. Paul), it would provide $385.5 million in appropriations for fiscal year 2022 to the four funds created by the Legacy Amendment.

After 2 1/2 hours of debate, the bill, as amended, was passed 79-52 the House Thursday evening. It now moves to the Senate where Sen. Carrie Ruud (R-Breezy Point) is the sponsor.

“This goes all around Minnesota and serves it well,” Lillie said. “We’re in the 13th year of the 25-year deal, and we really challenged people to look at their programs. I think it’s a bill that we all can be proud of.”

Under the bill, the Outdoor Heritage Fund would receive $130.8 million for fiscal year 2022; the Clean Water Fund $126.7 million; the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund $73.1 million; and the Parks and Trails Fund $54.8 million.

One amendment was added to the bill that would earmark $25,000 of the Minnesota Humanities Center’s $3.6 million Community Identity and Heritage Grant Program for an education program to develop American Indian history curriculum.

“The current social studies standards are asking for more history about Indigenous people,” said Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City). “This small appropriation would create American Indian curriculum developed by American Indians.”

Two other amendments proposed by Rep. Steve Green (R-Fosston) were defeated. One would have altered funding to include a documentary project on Minnesotans of Southeast Asian origin who participated in the Vietnam War, while another would have required increased monitoring of nitrogen in the waters of specific state-owned outdoor recreation system lands.

The legacy funds are divided between funds focused upon preserving habitats, prairies, wetlands and forests (33%); keeping the state’s water clean (33%); enhancing parks and trails (14.25%); and funding the arts and cultural programming (19.75%).

Outdoor Heritage Fund

This is the only fund that receives its appropriations on an annual rather than biennial basis. Hence, another round of funding will occur in 2022. The Outdoor Heritage Fund’s proposed $130.8 million appropriation for fiscal year 2022 includes $52.3 million for habitats, $42.8 million for prairies, $22.4 million for wetlands, and $12.5 million for forests.

The largest single project receiving Outdoor Heritage Fund money would be the Department of Natural Resources’ Conservation Partners Legacy Grant Program for statewide and metro habitat at $13.4 million.

Green expressed concern that too much of the fund is used for land acquisition.

“There’s not as much land purchased as there has been in the past,” Green said. “But 6,500 acres are purchased, and 2,600 of them will not have PILT [payments in lieu of taxes]. So that land will come off the tax rolls and hurt our rural communities, our schools, our roads. … We need to get away from the acquisitions and concentrate on what we already have.”

Clean Water Fund

Of the $126.7 million Clean Water Fund allocation for fiscal year 2022, $66.2 million would go to the Board of Water and Soil Resources. Of that, $21.2 million would be put into grants to watersheds, $12 million to soil and water conservation district administration grants, and $10.8 million for surface and drinking water protection and restoration grants.

Rep. Steve Green asks a question during the April 15 floor debate on the omnibus legacy finance bill. Photo by Paul Battaglia

The Pollution Control Agency would receive $21.9 million, with $7.2 million earmarked for continued river and lake monitoring and assessment and $6.6 million for watershed restoration and protection. Other recipients would include the Department of Agriculture ($10.3 million), Department of Natural Resources ($9.4 million), and Public Facilities Authority ($8.1 million), most of the latter for point source implementation grants.

Rep. Paul Anderson (R-Starbuck) and Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R-Nisswa) were both unhappy with less money for fiscal year 2023 being given to soil and water conservation districts. Whether those bodies are appropriate targets for legacy funding is an annual controversy. Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) defended the choice.

“The legacy funds are not base funding,” he said. “They’re supposed to be something special above that. In 2019, a large amount was taken from the funds for [soil and water conservation districts], but that wasn’t what the funds were for. We believe what we have here is something that fulfills the constitutional role of the Clean Water Fund. … We have done more to protect water than any other state. But spending the money and counting the acres is not enough. We need outcomes of clean drinking water, clean ground water.”

Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund

Almost half of this fund’s total appropriation of $73.1 million for fiscal year 2022 would go to the State Arts Board, which would receive $34.4 million. With the assistance of its 11 regional arts councils, it distributes funds to several hundred organizations and artists each year.

The second largest recipient of Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund money would be the Minnesota Historical Society, which would receive $15.6 million in fiscal year 2022. Of that, its statewide history programs would get $6.2 million, its statewide grant programs $6 million.

Rep. Hodan Hassan (DFL-Mpls) praised the fund’s increased focus upon serving communities of color throughout the state.

“In this bill, we’re funding projects that teach and celebrate our different cultures and heritages,” she said. “The African-American Museum, the Somali Museum, Latino and Asian-American programs. I am a strong believer that, if communities aren’t talking to one another, they’re talking about one another.”

Rep. Jay Xiong (DFL-St. Paul) agreed.

“This will support great projects on the East Side of St. Paul in the cause of greater equity,” he said. “The Black Arts Center, the Wakan Tipi Center, Hmong Museum, Karen and Thai Arts Center, and CLUES, the state’s largest Latino organization. … We need to invest today where we have not invested yesterday.”

Parks and Trails Fund

The smallest of the four funds would receive a total appropriation of $56.8 million for fiscal year 2022. It would be divvied up between the DNR ($33.1 million) and the Metropolitan Council ($21.7 million). That $21.7 million for metro area regional parks is the same amount that would be given the DNR for state parks, recreation areas and trails. The DNR would also distribute $10.8 million in grants earmarked for outside the metro area.

“We have proven worthy of the people’s trust since 2008,” said Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown). “We are teenagers now. There are still things being questioned, and that is a good thing. … Some of the people who voted for this are no longer with us, some who will benefit from this have not been born. But this is a lifelong journey that the people of Minnesota are taking together.”

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