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A bad idea whose time has come, again

Fri, Feb 4th, 2005
Posted in Commentary

It’s that silly season - a time before the legislature has to agree on a budget and the real partisan fighting begins - when legislators can tease their constituents with the notion that they are going to sponsor a pork barrel bill in their name.

Such is the case with H.F. 524 sponsored by Rep. Greg Davids in the Minnesota house and Sen. Bob Kierlin in the senate (S.F. 576).

The bill would appropriate $1,000,000 from the general fund to the Fillmore County Board of Commissioners for a grant to the Root River Valley Friends of the Arts to acquire land, design, and construct a theater and arts center in Lanesboro for lease to the Commonweal Theatre Company. The money would be part of a $3 million capital campaign for the Commonweal Center for the Arts.

A similar bill was passed in 2000 which approved $1,000,000 in bonding money to the city of Lanesboro for an art center that would be leased to Commonweal and Cornucopia Art Center. It also gave $100,000 in working money for a commission to see how this public-private partnership might work. A lot of water has poured over the dam since then.

First of all, the city of Lanesboro and the two art groups could not resolve their differences between the city’s need to protect its public interests versus the art groups’ need to maintain an autonomous program. There were numerous conflicts of interests that could not be solved.

In the end, the arts groups pulled out of the project and Root River Valley Friends of the Arts was set up to build the art center using private money. In the interim, Cornucopia went its separate way leaving Commonweal as the lone art player in the project.

This time around, the Davids/Kierlin bill addresses the sticky problem of public accountability by making the state allocation a grant rather than a bond, using the Fillmore County Board as a pass-through agency for the money.

I have it on good authority that no county commissioner was aware that the county would be acting in this capacity as per the legislation as it is written.

When I spoke to Rep. Davids about the county’s surprise at playing a role in the legislation, he assured me that when he met three weeks ago with representatives of the art group he was told that the county was “on board.” The same “assurances” were given in 2000 when the city of Lanesboro, unbeknownst to them, found themselves on the receiving end of a million dollars in bonding money.

Mark Thein, Fillmore County Economic Development Authority Coordinator, told the Journal that he was “pleasantly surprised” to see the county named in the bill.

Thein admitted to meeting with representatives of the Friends of the Arts about general support about a month ago. Thein said that the group told him that they planned to go to the legislature for money, but Thein said that he didn’t commit the county to acting on their behalf.

Calling the process, where legislators write up a bill without contacting the local unit of government, “a round about way”, Thein said that neither the EDA nor the county board had discussed the matter at all.

The Davids/Kierlin bill is supposedly designed to foster economic development in Lanesboro and the area. While a case can be made that tourism is a growing economic force in the region, and that Commonweal’s role in Lanesboro has been significant, the legislation promises no outcomes, including jobs or increased tourism which might be the result of a new art center.

In comparison, even Heartland’s ill fated venture for a business subsidy with JOBZ promised 20 jobs for the $1 million tax credits they hoped to get.

An art center for Lanesboro may be a worthwhile goal, but whether it should be built with public funds is worthy of open debate.

What is lacking in this whole affair is the public scrutiny that comes when units of government are called upon to be partners in legislation.

It seems to me that a project of this sort should start with local government initiating contact with the legislator. In the case of the county, this project should have started with the Economic Development Authority and climbed up the appropriate channels.

All of this comes, of course, at a time when the governor proposes balancing his no new taxes budget by slashing subsidized health care programs to the poor. In that climate, a million dollars for an art center might seem extravagant. Ask a school district what they would do with a million dollars.

Davids and Kierlin didn’t do their homework on this one. They should have asked themselves why the project failed the first time around with the city of Lanesboro. Why has Cornucopia abandoned the project? And why was the bill structured as a handout to an arts group?

This bill is a bad idea and should be withdrawn.

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