MARSHALL - Realizing that rural Minnesota wasn't getting its fair share of Legacy funding, the Minnesota Rural Counties Caucus and Greater Minnesota Regional Park and Trail Coalition got to work. And with the help of some outstate senators, the group says it has made plenty of headway in leveling the playing field when it comes to the distribution of funds from the 2008 voter-approved Legacy Act.
"The tone of the Legislature is not so much Democrat versus Republican, this is one of those areas where it's metro versus rural," said Dan Larson, administrator of the MRCC. "Rural Minnesota was just getting waxed. We started working with rural counties and found an angle in parks and trails."
The additional sales tax revenue generated by the 2008 amendment goes to an account to benefit parks and trails, clean water, outdoors and the arts. The MRCC said the initial Park and Trail Legacy split was not fair to greater Minnesota, with 43 percent going to the DNR, and another 43 percent exclusive to metro parks. That left 14 percent for the 80 non-metro counties.
Metro parks, Larson said, were also allowed to compete for that remaining 14 percent and were awarded 20 percent of it.
So Larson's group enlisted the help of rural Sens. Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls and Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria to try and balance the numbers.
"We put a group together and stood toe-to-toe with 19 lobbyists - is was us and a core group of senators, including Gary Dahms, Bill Ingebrigtsen; they were fantastic," Larson said. "They really stepped up for us. They get it because they come from a county background."
Because of those efforts, Larson said, greater Minnesota in 2012 and 2013 will receive nearly as much for park and trail funding as it did in 20 prior years total.
But in order to achieve full equality, Larson said the group had to do more, and this year legislation was passed into law that eliminates existing requirements for rural cities and counties to provide a 25 percent local match and eliminates a $500,000 annual funding cap on any project outside the seven-county metro area. Metro park and trail entities, Larson said, had no corresponding statutory requirement to meet the local match or project cap standards.
"Our whole thing was about equity," said Larson. "When it came time to hear the bill, (the metro) came out with all their guns blazing and they opposed it. We had to fight 'em."
The groups representing rural counties called the local match and project cap provision an unfair burden to "good projects moving forward in cash-strapped greater Minnesota cities and counties."
"Nobody was budgeting for this because the counties were all sitting back saying, 'We're getting squeezed already,'" Larson said. "This is one place to look at as a positive; now there's money out there."
So where will this funding go? Larson said the groups will start with regional centers around Minnesota, hoping to come up with sound projects worthy of Legacy funding. No matter the project, however, Larson knows they'll be in for a fight.
"They have to be able to withstand criticism we're going to get from the metro," he said. "We're going to have to defend them. It shouldn't matter to them what we spend our money on, because we don't care how they spend their money."