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Minnesotans to North Dakota: Don't wait to work out details of outdoors amendment

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Minnesotans to North Dakota: Don't wait to work out details of outdoors amendment
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans entering their sixth year of a fund that pays for a variety of outdoor projects have some advice for their North Dakota neighbors who this fall may decide to implement a similar fund: Work out spending details early.

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One of the few major problems encountered in launching the Minnesota legacy fund, with money coming from a sales tax increase, was vague language about how parks and trails money may be spent. That issue only arose following a mostly harmonious campaign to get the constitutional amendment passed.

"One of the lessons that was learned in Minnesota is if you don't identify and advance the process on allocating funds, you will have a lot of agreement before the ballot (vote), but a bloodbath after the ballot," Minnesota Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said.

While the constitutional amendment Minnesota voters approved in 2008 specifically divided the new tax money among four funds -- outdoor heritage, clean water, parks-trails and arts-culture -- it left specifics alone, which became an issue when it came to the $30 million to $40 million parks and trails receive each year.

The feeling before the 2008 vote was "we will play nice in the sandbox," Landwehr said about parks and trails advocates. "Now it is this annual bloodbath among the metro (Twin Cities) parks, the regional parks and the state."

The addition of a commission to look after park interests outside the Twin Cities has helped, the commissioner said, since state and Twin Cities parks already had organizations.

A broad-based coalition opposing the North Dakota amendment touches on the issue: "This measure would commit 5 percent of North Dakota’s oil extraction tax -- at least $300 million per biennium -- to a new massive conservation fund with no clear idea of how the money would be spent."

The amendment North Dakotans will consider is different from the Minnesota one in several ways.

Most importantly, the Minnesota fund divvies up the new sales tax money four ways: 33 percent to clean water, 33 percent to outdoor heritage, 19.75 percent to arts and cultural heritage projects (something not included in the North Dakota proposal) and 14.25 percent to parks and trails.

The Minnesota Legislature has final say over spending money, but various boards made recommendations, which lawmakers generally follow. In North Dakota, a 13-member citizen board would recommend spending to a commission composed of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, which would have the final spending decisions.

Minnesota Sen. Tom Saxhaug, D-Grand Rapids, said he knows a bit about the North Dakota issue, which "seems to have a much more organized campaign against it than we did." The opposition coalition includes members from farm, business, local government and energy organizations.

Saxhaug, Landwehr and others suggested that one thing North Dakotans should consider is how to fund ongoing operating costs after the state buys more land and starts programs with the new money. Such costs usually fall into the regular state budget, which may not be able to take on the added costs.

But President Mark Johnson of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association had just one bit of advice: "North Dakota, jump on it."

Johnson said that despite what many people think, "if they wait 20 years, the money is not going to be there. ... If they want to keep their standard of living, from a natural resources standpoint, now is when they need to be doing it."

'Legacy' has different meanings

Minnesota and North Dakota may be neighbors, but they do not always speak the same language.

In Minnesota, "legacy fund" means revenue from an increase in the state sales tax that voters approved in 2008. The money goes to outdoors, clean water, parks, trails, arts and culture programs.

In North Dakota, voters approved a measure in 2009 they know as the "legacy fund" to use revenues from the state oil and gas tax to build up a budget reserve in case it is needed for any reason in the future. The state calls its proposed constitutional change, similar to the Minnesota 2008 one, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment.

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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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