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Senate Legacy funds debate turns rural-urban

ST. PAUL -- Rural and urban Minnesota senators battled toward the end of the session about how to divide outdoors and arts program funding.

Rural senators won, but just barely.

Senator Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said rural Minnesota is "under assault once again" with an amendment by Senator Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, that would have reduced the amount of parks money spent in Greater Minnesota by millions of dollars.

"The issue is about equity and fairness," Eaton said before her amendment failed 33-31.

Once the urban-rule debate ended, the overall bill passed 55-10.

The money is part of $485 million to be spent on outdoors and arts projects across the state. It comes from a sales tax increase voters approved in 2008, setting up the "legacy" funding program.

"This is one of the most controversial issues that crosses party lines," Senator David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said about rural-urban divisions, adding that there is much more state-owned park land in rural areas.

"We need balance," Eaton said. "The current bill is not balanced. Members, we are just asking for more fair distribution of legacy money."

The overall bill divided parks money: 40 percent to Twin Cities parks, 40 percent to rural parks and 20 percent to state parks. Eaton wanted to move it to 43 percent to the Twin Cities, taking it away from rural parks.

Eaton said Twin Cities taxpayers are funding rural parks. "The money is not coming from the rural funds."

Senator John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, said many Twin Cities residents visit parks in rural areas because the three urban state parks do not offer experiences that can be enjoyed outside the metropolitan area.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that when the legacy constitutional amendment was being discussed in 2008, much of the talk was about a need "to maintain our very, very valuable natural resources."

Forestry and parks programs are the "stepchildren" of the Department of Natural Resources, Bakk said. "We have a responsibility to preserve them."

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.