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DAVID STROM: Don’t repeat Minnesota’s ‘Legacy Amendment’ mistake

David Strom

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — Over the years, skepticism about government spending has grown, and with reason. We are all tired of hearing about gigantic wastes of taxpayer dollars at the same time as critical government functions seem underfunded.

So, taxpayers have turned to a new mechanism to rein in wayward politicians: voting to dedicate funds to specific purposes, taking discretion out of the hands of people we don’t trust to do the right thing.

On its face, it makes sense: if politicians aren’t doing the right thing, then take away their power to do the wrong thing.

It was in that spirit that Minnesotans overwhelmingly voted for the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment in 2008.

The Legacy Amendment increases the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent until 2034. The extra sales tax revenue is put into four funds in this way: 33 percent to the Clean Water Fund; 33 percent to the Outdoor Heritage Fund; 19.75 percent to the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund; and 14.25 percent to the Parks and Trails Fund.

All together, these funds will spend about $320 million this year. That’s a lot of money.

The magic of the Legacy Amendment is that nobody can object to spending money on clean water, or parks, or “outdoor heritage” (whatever that is), and most of us are OK if not excited to spend government dollars on arts and cultural heritage, as long as the content is unobjectionable.

A lot of people would have put more into parks and less into arts; but overall, most people were content enough to vote for the amendment.

That was a big mistake. Dedicated funds don’t prevent politicians from spending money on stupid things. They just allow politicians to spend even more money on stupid things.

The problem is simple — and when you think about it, pretty obvious. What dedicated funds do is let politicians use fewer General Fund dollars on a lot of important projects, while also providing new money politicians can use to buy votes from special interests.

That is exactly what has happened with the Legacy fund.

Lots of special interests have called “dibs” on millions of dollars of Legacy money, while other vital projects are being ignored. Worse, with the hard percentages written into the Constitution, there is no way to put more money into cleaning a lake and a bit less into grants to teach people to Flamenco dance.

If Minnesotans knew when they voted for the Legacy Amendment that tens of thousands of dollars would be spent sending artists on luxury trips to destinations such as Bali, Tahiti, Pompeii, Costa Rica and the Arctic Circle, they might have rethought their vote.

Minnesotans voted for the Legacy Amendment because they like clean water and enjoy their parks and trails. But we are spending money on grants for things such as “a dance/performance work that uses choreography, text and scrap lumber to explore biography, communication, self-determination and desire.”

Scrap lumber dance: a new government priority.

Our frustration with politicians’ priorities is often justified, but the solution is not creating dedicated funds that have even less accountability than most government spending. Dedicated funds are simply not a means to ensure that tax dollars are spent on the priorities that citizens want. They instead become slush funds that nobody pays attention to.

In fact, one powerful politician actually argued that legacy funds aren’t even really “tax dollars,” so people shouldn’t complain about the silly things that get funded.

The only way to hold government accountable for its priorities — for how it spends our tax dollars — is to actually hold the politicians accountable for the budgets they vote for. If we want more money for clean water, tell them. If you want more for education, tell them. If you want less money for an agency or program, tell them.

Taking the tough budget decisions out of the hands of politicians only puts those decisions into the hands of people who care even less what you think than your elected officials.

That was a bad idea in 2008, and it is a proven bad idea today.

Strom is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment