We appreciated that we could hunt on our land and that of neighbors where I grew up, a hobby farm on a stretch of 20 acres tucked equidistant between Silver Lake and Cokato in central Minnesota. There were plenty of animals to go after, including pheasants. Pick a bog, swamp, harvested corn field or grassland and you’d find them.

Not the best for eating though, frankly. I preferred the chickens we raised. But pheasants and other animals we could hunt or capture were free food during a time when we would buy a half a cow cheap from our neighbor, grow a winter’s worth of potatoes and squash to store in the cellar and can vegetables to eat through the winter. Times were tight: Grocery lists were itemized to the penny in estimated spending before we went to the store.

Today, pheasants are an affluent white man’s sport, receiving indirect tax support from the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to idle marginal cropland, and direct support from Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment. Passed in 2008, the amendment allows proceeds from a portion of sales taxes to be used to purchase and set aside more land for pheasants. So far, $45 million has been spent on habitat for pheasants.

Granted, Minnesota’s “Pheasant Index” dropped 29 percent last year, and pheasant populations are declining in South Dakota and Iowa, too. There’s some economic benefit here as well, given that thousands of people hunt for pheasants each year, increasingly on land that’s stocked with birds. Minnesota has 63 commercially licensed shooting preserves, each of which is required by the state to release 1,000 birds a year, including pheasants, quail and partridges. There also are private shooting areas, some of which raise thousands of pheasants from eggs to make sure they can be shot for sport.

That’s great for those who like to hunt pheasants. The question from a taxpayer perspective is how important is it that Minnesotans can hunt pheasants? The answer: Not at all, except for the remaining few who live off the land.

This raises another question: Why do pheasants get special treatment? What about rabbits or deer? Where’s the “Rabbit Index” or “Deer Index”? Where’s the Legacy-provided taxpayer dollars to protect their habitat, along with a columnist at the state’s largest newspaper to write pro-habitat stories for them without disclosing to readers his personal bias in the subject, as he does for pheasants?

Having a portion of our taxes go to protect our natural resources, including game and wildlife, is money well spent when it’s done through the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The public can, on a regular basis, weigh in on how these dollars are to be spent, and research how they were spent. That’s not the case with Legacy Amendment dollars.

This might seem like ruffled feathers, much ado about nothing, but I think there’s enough here to cry foul. Spending $45 million to ensure that an extremely small percentage of our state’s population can enjoy a sport? It makes me wonder what else is going on with the Legacy Amendment, which, when all is said and done, will raise and spend $7 billion over 25 years. This is why our cover story this month digs into what’s really going on with the amendment. The conclusion: Nobody’s really keeping track enough to say. “Pheasantgate” is among the story’s findings. Averaged, pheasant habitat has been getting about $10 million a year, which could be better spent by:

  • Funding 5 million meals for the hungry in Minnesota through Hunger-Free Minnesota.
  • Paying the salaries for 213 teachers (about 10 percent) in the Minneapolis Public School District.
  • Paying for 188 additional Minneapolis police officers.
  • Covering nearly half of the $24 million a year in unpaid emergency room visits at Hennepin County Medical Center, costs usually absorbed by local taxpayers and other patients with health insurance.
  • Purchasing more than 600,000 books for schools and libraries.

“Legacy” is a challenging concept to impose on the masses. It assumes a select few can determine what the majority’s desired legacy is to be. It’s a noble endeavor. The problem here is that what’s been set up for Minnesota’s legacy seems far different from what our legacy really is, and was.

The amendment focuses on things like theater, habitat for animals, arts programs, clean water and the like. Historically, however, our legacy has been one of focused on people: ensuring the best educational opportunities for all children, helping the disadvantaged get ahead, helping others in need …

Areas served by the Legacy Amendment are important—we all benefit from clean water. But they’re already, or could instead be, receiving support through other already established, accountable resources. Meanwhile, imagine what $7 billion could do to really protect Minnesota’s legacy, if only there were proper planning, oversight, transparency and reporting to ensure it serves everyone’s best interests rather than special interests.

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