- Associated Press - Monday, April 17, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 17

Dayton, Legislature need to find a solution for state’s parks and trails

From the woods and lakes Up North to bluff country down south, Minnesotans love their extensive system of state parks, trails and recreation areas. They enjoy them so much that demand for single-day vehicle permits has increased 34 percent since 2012. The state’s 75 parks and thousands of miles of trails served more than 10 million park visitors and nearly 2 million trail users last year.

Additionally, a portion of those users were attracted to Minnesota’s great outdoors from other states and countries. Those visitors were key contributors to the state’s $14 billion-a-year tourism industry.

People love Minnesota’s natural amenities, but many are loathe to pay higher taxes for them.

Mark Dayton has proposed an $8.9 million increase over two years for the parks and trail system’s $250 million biennial budget, including modest fee hikes. But the House and Senate recommend spending significantly less. The Department of Natural Resources estimates that by 2019 the operating budget would be underfunded by up to $5.8 million under the Senate proposal and $1.5 million under the House plan.

The proposals follow several years of decreased funding for the system (with the exception of a one-time, $3.4 million increase last year) even as the number of users has increased. Parks officials say the Senate and House proposals could lead to significant cuts such as a shorter camping season, shuttered facilities, reduced trail maintenance and less programming.

It’s time for Dayton and legislators to settle on a compromise that combines reasonable fee hikes with modest funding increases. And though it was once a goal for no Minnesotan to have to go farther than 30 miles to reach a state park, it may be time to rethink that directive. Longer term, officials could reevaluate whether to maintain less popular sites.

Under a DNR proposal, snowmobile registration fees would rise from $25 to $35, for example, and annual state park passes would go from $25 to $30. The per car park entrance fee would rise from $5 to $6. We’d argue that even slightly higher fees would still be affordable and would help close the gap between the proposals by the Dayton administration and the GOP-led Senate and House.

In the past, the parks and trails system received 50 percent of its budget from state taxpayers and the other half from fees, licensing and other designated sources. Now only about 20 percent of the funding comes from the state’s general fund, with 80 percent raised through dedicated funding streams such as the state’s 2008 Legacy Amendment. Since that funding is tied to specific purposes, most of it cannot be used for general operations.

With all of the competition for state dollars, individual agencies cannot expect large increases - even in a year with a budget surplus. To do right by the state’s valuable parks and trails, a little more reliance on user fees and a modest increase in state funding is in order.

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The Free Press of Mankato, April 14

Pulitzer: Community journalism worth the big prize

He didn’t mince words, and those words have landed the editor at a small Iowa newspaper the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, putting him in the company of winners from the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Art Cullen, the winning editorial writer from the Storm Lake Times, caught the notice of many media and their followers this week for being the little guy who made the big time. His prize was tied to opinion pieces he wrote for the 3,000-circulation newspaper that helped unveil the corporate donors behind a lawsuit over nitrate pollution in local rivers. The topic is a familiar one in farming country, and taking on big ag as Cullen did is not for the faint of heart.

Aside from prompting journalists who work at small newspapers to stand up taller, Cullen’s award stresses the crucial importance of local journalism. His editorial writing was based on impressive expertise that came from lots of solid reporting.

It is the public that suffers if reporters aren’t poring over data, attending meetings, and combing through court documents. Not knowing what’s going on in your community because no one is paying attention or bothering to dig below the surface hurts society in general on a number of levels, including economic.

Years ago when Blue Earth County was filling its landfill at an alarming rate because its low fees attracted haulers from elsewhere, this newspaper covered the issue and the practice stopped. When the county fell behind on updating its property assessments and expensive houses weren’t on the tax roll, this newspaper wrote about it and the problem received attention.

When the project to improve Highway 14 from North Mankato to Nicollet was passed over repeatedly because government officials argued it wasn’t a high priority, this newspaper challenged those assumptions and proved the stretch was one of the most dangerous highways in the state. The report drew notice and legislators approved the Corridors of Commerce program; the $40 million project from North Mankato to Nicollet received corridor program funding.

Community newspapers the size of Storm Lake’s or Mankato’s don’t have a corps of investigative reporters who can spend a year on one topic. But they know their communities and the serious publications, no matter what their size, aren’t afraid to shed light on the good, the bad and the ugly.

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Post-Bulletin, April 17

Perpich Center needs new vision or it’s curtains

It’s a safe bet that many, if not most Minnesotans were unaware that the state has an arts agency, the Perpich Center for Arts Education, that manages two schools. One is the Crosswinds Arts and Science School in Woodbury, serving students in grades 6-10, and the other is the Perpich Arts High School in Golden Valley, for students in grades 11-12.

The schools have gained attention in the past year, and not in a good way. The Legislature “flagged” the arts agency for a financial and program evaluation through the Office of the Legislative Auditor. While the audit played out, the arts agency’s board chairman unexpectedly resigned, and the agency’s executive director retired.

Those were not encouraging signs.

Predictably, when the audit results were released in January, the report was scathing. Deputy Legislative Auditor Judy Randall told the House Education Innovation Policy Committee that there were “significant problems” with board oversight and agency management. “The schools have poor test scores and there’s declining enrollment,” she said. “In other words, we found a lot to be concerned about.”

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that the Perpich Center soon will cut ties with Crosswinds. It took over operations of the school in 2014, with the idea that the magnet school would serve as a “feeder” program for the high school, but that plan hasn’t worked. Enrollment at the high school is capped at 310, but this year began with just 187 students, down from 306 in 2011.

The good news is that the St. Paul School District is poised to take over Crosswinds and retain its curriculum, so those students and faculty members won’t face a huge change.

But what will become of the Perpich Arts High School?

Former Gov. Rudy Perpich initiated the idea for an arts high school not long after he took office in 1983. It was approved by the Legislature in 1985 and opened as the Minnesota Center for Arts Education in 1989. The goal was to attract talented students from all corners of the state to an arts-based high school program.

The Perpich Center also was to provide arts outreach beyond the metro region, so students who couldn’t move to the Twin Cities could still get at least some exposure to the arts.

Today, however, nearly 80 percent of the high school’s students come from the metro area, which probably isn’t surprising. There’s no tuition to attend the school, but students from Worthington or Elk River can’t exactly commute. There are dormitories, but the cost is $3,600 per year, plus nearly $10 for three meals a day, so it’s small wonder that parents from LeRoy, Caledonia and Millville aren’t pounding on the doors to get their kids admitted.

While we strongly support the goal of high-quality, arts-based education, the legislative auditor’s report makes it clear that this goal hasn’t been met in recent years, and we’re not convinced that the tide can be turned without a dramatic intervention.

Then there’s the money factor. The arts agency’s funding has declined in recent years, but it’s still getting more than $4 million per year in taxpayer dollars. This cash could be distributed statewide to help school districts restore some of the music and art programming that’s been cut.

If the state remains committed to the Perpich Center, then it needs to double-down and do it right, from rebuilding management and confidence in the program to rethinking the mission. Maybe room and board needs to be free as well, to make it a truly statewide program, for example.

But it’s clearly not fair to students or taxpayers to let the Perpich Center limp along as it currently is. The time for this program simply may have come and gone.

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