Legislators ponder the difference between supplement and substituteby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Tonight, a crowd is expected at a legislative hearing on how to spend millions of dollars in new state money for the arts. The funds are from a new sales tax passed by voters in November. It's a debate complicated by the economic downturn and by the language in the constitutional amendment approved by voters.
St. Paul, Minn. — In her office at Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, Executive Director Sheila Smith has a piece of paper stuck on the wall. It's at eye level above her desk.
It's the language of the constitutional amendment passed in November, which Smith describes as one of her organization's greatest successes.
"In Minnesota, the citizens voted to include the arts as one of the most important things about our quality of life along with the environment that we treasure and plan to protect," Smith said. "And I think that's great, so I want to see it every day."
But before any of that money is available the legislature has to approve a distribution system. And that's why Smith highlighted one sentence on her piece of paper in neon yellow.
"The dedicated money under this section must supplement traditional sources of funding for these purposes and may not be used as a substitute," she read aloud. The 22 words in this sentence seem pretty straightforward to Smith - the money from the new sales tax must be in addition to existing funds, not supplant them.
But Smith is worried. Governor Pawlenty has proposed zeroing out the State Arts Board's current $10 million annual budget and converting it to a private non-profit. The Governor's plan does not include any mention of the new sales tax revenue.
The proposal to cut the arts board worries advocates because it is the body which has distributed state funds in the past. The assumption was it would continue in this role.
Smith said, while everyone should expect cuts as a result of the state's budget shortfall, cuts to the arts should be commensurate, not a total wipeout.
"I think if they do that, then what's has been perpetrated is a complete fraud," Smith said. "And if that is what happens at the Capitol then the public has every right to be angry about it."
The Governors office did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
However, a memo prepared by House Research for the Minnesota House committee debating the distribution of the sales tax funds, says legally the constitutional language is not clear.
Specifically it says that, while the intent and effect of the language is clear, the scope and impact is not. There is also a question as to what the term 'traditional sources of funding' means.
During a recent hearing the committee learned the state auditors office considered the supplement/substitute issue last year, before the amendment passed. The auditors' office raised the possibility that it might take a lawsuit to get clarity.
The chair of the senate finance committee, Senator Richard Cohen, said lawmakers take the amendment language seriously.
"I think the legislature will attempt to abide by that as best it can relative to all parts of the constitutional amendment," Cohen said. "However we do have a huge budget deficit."
This, according to Cohen, means there are likely to be cuts to arts funding. As for the Governor's proposal to zero out state arts board money, Cohen said he has not heard any support in the legislature for what the governor has proposed.
"None whatsoever," he said.
It's clear many groups are hoping for a slice of the sales-tax pie.
But the sales tax isn't even going to start being collected until July 1. The February finance forecast projected the arts share of the tax at around $47 million. But that number may well shrink along with the economy.
Senator Cohen said the money can't do everything, but it can do a lot.
"At the end of the day this is not going to supplement in totality Minnesota's system of private support for the arts," he said. "But it does provide on a state level the most significant support that you'll find anywhere in the country with the possible exception of New York State."
Tonight's hearing before the House Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Division Committee starts at 4:30 p.m. Last week's meeting on parks trails and clean water adjourned after almost six hours.
- Morning Edition, 03/16/2009, 7:25 a.m.