Arts advocates celebrate the approval of the Great Outdoors and Heritage Amendment bill

For Minnesotans, 2008 may be a pivotal year for both the arts and the environment. On February 14, the Great Outdoors and Heritage Amendment bill was approved as the first piece of business in this year’s state legislative session. Nearly ten years in the making, the initiative asks voters to amend the state constitution to dedicate a small portion of the state sales tax to protect clean water, wildlife, natural areas and cultural heritage projects.

On Election Day this fall, voters will see the following question on their ballots.

Clean Water, Wildlife, Cultural Heritage and Natural Areas
Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate funding to protect our drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve our arts and cultural heritage; to support our parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore our lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater by increasing the sales and use tax rate beginning July 1, 2009, by three-eighths of one percent on taxable sales until the year 2034? Yes_____ No_____

If approved by the voters, the increase in the state sales tax is predicted to raise approximately $291 million per year, available starting in 2010. Of the funds, 33 percent will go to an outdoor heritage fund to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat for fish, game and wildlife; 33 percent will go to a clean water fund to protect, enhance, and restore water quality in lakes, rivers, and streams and to protect groundwater; 14.25 percent will support parks and trails of regional or statewide significance; and 19.75 percent will fund the arts—arts education, arts access and the preservation of Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage.

On that day, over 500 arts advocates from across the state gathered at the Minnesota State Capitol for Arts Advocacy Day, an annual event. Arts Advocacy Day is promoted by its organizers as an opportunity for citizens to thank legislators for their support of the arts—and to encourage support from those who don’t. With the Great Outdoors and Heritage Amendment before the legislature, this year’s Arts Advocacy Day had special significance.

The day began with a rally at the Minnesota History Center, just down the street from the Capitol. Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, ran through the agenda and talked about what to expect for the day. Arts lobbyist Larry Redmond said a few words, as did arts supporter Senator Richard Cohen—a Democrat representing St. Paul’s District 64.

“The purpose of the day is really to connect Minnesota arts people with their elected representatives and to teach officials about the importance of the arts in their communities,” said Smith. “This year, the message was to pass the Great Outdoor and Heritage Amendment—and boy, did they listen. The bill passed a few hours later!”

Carolyn Bye, formerly the executive director of the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, has attended Arts Advocacy Day for fourteen years. “It’s very important that people show up for Arts Advocacy Day,” she said. “Legislators like to communicate with their constituents one-on-one. It’s very exciting for individuals to be able to speak with their senator or representative and talk specifically about programs with their organization or in their community.”

According to Bye, the feeling of this advocacy day was different than other years because of the Great Outdoors and Heritage Amendment bill. “Often, Advocacy Day is spent going from appointment to appointment—this time was different. With the passing of the bill, advocates received almost immediate reinforcement.”

Many were attending Arts Advocacy Day for the first time. Campus Arts Advocacy intern Tara Degn has worked hard since last fall to engage students—over 200 of whom attended this year’s Arts Advocacy Day—in the “art” of advocacy. “Ultimately, if [students are] majoring in an arts related field, they’re going to need to have a dedicated interest in advocacy…it’s their future. [Arts funding will help provide] the job security that they need, so they know there will be a thriving arts community in Minnesota when they graduate.”

Some legislators have expressed concern over the Great Outdoors and Heritage Amendment bill due to the fact that the bill requests an increase in the state sales tax by three eighths of a percent for 25 years. Others disagree with combining funding of both the environment and the arts on one bill.

On Arts Advocacy Day, Representative Cy Thao—a Democrat representing St. Paul’s District 65A—told his constituents that it’s not easy to consider raising taxes for environmental and cultural causes when there are so many areas of need. Senator Tom Bakk is a Democrat representing District 6, Lake Superior’s north shore including Duluth. During the Senate debate on February 14, Bakk warned his colleagues about adding a new sales tax. “You need to reflect on the cumulative impact of this session and the burden it’s going to put on our low-income citizens, our unemployed citizens, and our elderly people on fixed incomes. We are making our tax system…significantly more regressive than it is today.”

According to advocates of both the arts and environmental protection, however, it’s worth the cost. “This amendment is about future generations, and increasing our investment in the future of Minnesota,” said Peggy Ladner, state director of the Nature Conservancy. “Acting now to ensure that we properly protect our water, natural areas, and cultural heritage for our children and grandchildren is an investment well worth making.”

Sheila Smith knows that there are legislators opposed to the bill. “But the important thing to remember is that the majority of them passed it. Now it’s up to the people to decide.”

Betsy Mowry (betsy.mowry@hotmail.com) works as an arts administrator with COMPAS and the Arts & Culture Partnership of St. Paul.