Senate Finance Backs Additonal Funds For MN Zoo

It costs the same to run Minnesota’s zoo whether visitors show up or not says Minnesota Zoo CEO Lee Ehmke. So when bad weather such as last year’s polar vortex and rainy spring keep visitors away, the zoo loses money. Combine that with increased costs and the zoo finds itself asking the state of Minnesota for deficit funding for the first time since 1998.

Monday the Senate Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Budget Committee got an overview of the zoo’s request for an additional $1.5 million to pay for operations this year. Governor Dayton included the additional money in his budget request.

One committee member jokingly asked if “a dome would help”, apparently a reference to the millions the state has given to finance a new domed stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.

Ehmke pointed out that more people attend zoos in the United States than all major league sporting events combined. He also said that Minnesota’s zoo consistently ranks in or near the top ten zoos in the country. He also said the zoo is the largest environmental educator in the state.

Senator Torrey Westrom asked if the state were to provide matching funds, would that help fundraising. Ehmke said that matching funds are a good way to pressure donors to give, but large donors are already funding many capital improvements at the zoo and already have enough pressure, so he did not think matching funds would make a significant difference. Ehmke said he appreciated the idea but “we are not going to be able to fundraise out of our current deficit.”

State’s Funding Of MN Zoo Has Declined

The zoo is one of only two state-owned and operated zoos in the country. Most of the zoo’s budget comes from funds it raises itself. General fund tax dollars account for 22% of the budget, down significantly from several years ago when the state paid for about one-third of the zoo’s operation. The national average for public funding of accredited zoos is 34%.

You can find more on the zoo’s budget here.

The Senate Finance Committee took up the zoo’s request Monday night as part of the deficiency funding bill and approved it on a voice vote. Video of the meeting is below and starts at about 1 hour and 37 minutes.

Disclosure: The writer of this story has volunteered at the Minnesota Zoo.

Michael McIntee

Michael McIntee is a former network TV news executive with more than 30 years of broadcasting experience. He began his broadcasting career at the University of Minnesota's student radio station. He is an expert producer, writer, video editor who has a fondness for new technology but denies that he is a geek. More about Michael McIntee »

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