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Helping 4-H could hurt

By Don Davis

State Capitol Bureau

Forum Communications

ST. PAUL -- A state senator's bill designed to help fund a 4-H program in one county could end up hurting them statewide, a fellow senator and a county fair representative warn.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman's bill to provide new ways to fund 4-H programs passed out of its first committee Monday, but not before she heard warnings that it could do more harm than good. She also faced a charge that the proposal gives 4-H special treatment over other programs.

The Woodbury Democrat wrote the bill after Washington County commissioners decided the youth program was too expensive in these times of budget cuts and stopped funding it.

Washington County residents and some city officials were ready to pitch in financially, but as 4-H leaders hunted for money "they were finding some barriers to their fundraising," Saltzman said.

Executive Director David Olson of the Washington County Agriculture Society, which runs the county fair where 4-Hers display their projects, told the Senate State and Local Government Operations and Oversight Committee that the fair probably could not survive without 4-H and that cities and others who wanted to donate to 4-H found that state law apparently does not allow it.

With state funds being cut to counties, which provide much of the 4-H funding, the Washington County situation could expand to other areas.

"Other counties are watching Washington very, very closely," Saltzman said.

Sen. Rick Olseen, DFL-Harris, agreed that Washington County is attracting lots of attention, but said the results may not be good for 4-H. He said he fears that if the Saltzman bill becomes law, other counties could end 4-H funding because the programs would have other money sources.

County fair leaders expect to draw up a response to the Saltzman bill this week, lobbyist Jerry Schoenfeld said. Some fair officials share Olseen's fear.

"This bill was brought forth because of one county dropping its 4-H program," Schoenfeld said, and there may be other ways to fix the problem.

"There just are lots of questions," he added.

Saltzman's bill, which faces more committee debate before a full Senate vote, would allow Minnesota 4-H programs to collect money from:

-- Voluntary admission surcharges at the state or local fairs.

-- Cities or townships that want to appropriate money to the University of Minnesota Extension Service, which supervisors the 4-H program.

-- Dues 4-H members pay; dues now are not allowed.

All of the fund-raising methods are voluntary.

Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, told Saltzman: "This is quite a feel-good bill." But, he added, debate teams, marching bands and other organizations will seek the same treatment.

"This is opening the door for every event that has been cut to come to the Legislature and say 'We want a way to tax,'" Parry said.

But, Saltzman countered, 4-H is a state program and Extension Service programs are mandated by state law.