GOP looks to legacy amendment funds in budget fixby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — For months, Republican legislative leaders have said that they intend to balance the state's budget without raising taxes.
But when GOP leaders craft a detailed plan to erase the state's projected $5 billion deficit, they likely will take aim at money voters dedicated to support the arts and outdoors projects.
Over the past decade, lawmakers and the governor drained dedicated state funds like the tobacco endowment and the budget reserve to cushion the pain of spending cuts.
There aren't many pots of money like that left, but there is one.
In 2008, voters approved a constitutional Legacy amendment for a sales tax increase and dedicated the money to outdoors projects and the arts.
MPR is one of the organizations that has received Legacy funding.
According to the amendment's language, Legacy money must be used to supplement, not supplant, existing state programs. But with money so short Democrats believe Republicans are preparing to test that language.
State Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said she's concerned Republicans will pay for ongoing state Department of Natural Resources programs with legacy money. She believes that could violate the will of the voters who approved the constitutional amendment.
"They voted to say that this is supposed to be new money to add on to or accelerate programs," Wagenius said. "It's not supposed to be used to backfill but it looks to me like there is going to be ample opportunity that's being set up for backfilling."
Republicans in the Minnesota Senate are expected to release their budget targets today. The GOP controlled House is also expected to release the figures this week.
Wagenius said Republicans haven't released any budget specifics yet, so it's hard to say exactly what the Republican majority will do.
State Rep. Dennis McNamara, R-Hastings said he's working to ease the concerns that Wagenius is raising, but he's not sure he will satisfy everyone.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we got sued by an interest group that thinks we supplanted," he said.
McNamara, chairman of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, said the state's fiscal situation is forcing lawmakers to be creative when it comes to crafting their budgets. But he said he will work to show a clear distinction between general fund money and Legacy funding.
"These are budget cuts that we have never seen before, and they are going to hit all parts of the budget including the environment and natural resources area that are helped with the Legacy money," he said. "But they are two different pots of money and we're hoping that we can show to the best of our ability to the general public that we're doing the right thing and they understand."
McNamara isn't the only committee chair who is bracing for budget cuts. In fact, several key lawmakers are warning that the budget will include drastic cuts.
State Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka
"If anybody tells you that there's some easy answer, they're just blowing smoke at you because it's not true," said State Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.
Abeler is chairman of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee. At a rally for mental health services earlier this week Abeler urged people to look at the budget coming out of his committee as only one step in a process that will include the Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton.
But health and human services spending accounts for nearly a third of state spending. Elementary and secondary education is the biggest piece, but apart from a payment shift enacted last year and likely to be continued, lawmakers say they want to largely spare schools from cuts. That means services for the sick and elderly, hospitals, local governments and colleges are likely to be the biggest losers in the GOP budget plan.
Faced with making such cuts, the lure of legacy money might prove awfully hard for Republicans to resist.
NOTE: Minnesota Public radio is one of the recipients of funding generated by the Legacy Amendment.