In 2008, Minnesota voters overwhelmingly approved an historic constitutional amendment to increase the state’s investment in cleaning up lakes and rivers, protecting wildlife habitat, and improving parks and trails. The Legacy Amendment spells out that the newly dedicated funds “must supplement traditional sources of funding for these purposes and may not be used as a substitute.” Today, the legal meaning of this prohibition against substitution is at the center of ongoing debate at the Capitol. While our analysis does not seek to answer this legal question, common sense tells us that Minnesotans who voted to tax themselves expect to see more money spent in these important areas.
Three years after passage of the Legacy Amendment, repeated state budget deficits have tested the Legislature’s ability to stick to the voters’ intent. There are increasingly frequent instances where the Legislature has used Legacy funds to backfill budget cuts, raising concerns that the intended benefits of Legacy funds may erode over time. While politicians may continue to argue over whether these budget practices violate the legal standard, voters recognize this backfilling as exactly the kind of substitution prohibited by the Amendment. As the old saying goes, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.