The House and Senate appear to be heading for a conference committee battle over the marquee land-acquisition proposal in this year’s Legacy bill.
The $97 million Lessard-Sams bill features as its centerpiece a $14 million proposal to buy 2,000 acres along a 2.7-mile stretch of the Mississippi River north of Brainerd. Key lawmakers in the House, however, are chafing at the cost of the land and have cut the dollars attached to the proposal in their bill.
Since 2008, when voters approved the Legacy constitutional amendment to raise the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent to pay for environmental and cultural projects, lawmakers have taken recommendations from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Those recommendations pertain to the 33 percent of the Legacy Amendment directed toward enriching habitat for hunting and fishing in the state.
The Lessard-Sams panel, which consists of citizens and legislators, is well-known for zealously defending its recommendations and speaking out when lawmakers make significant alterations. Politically active sportsmen, who make up much of the council’s membership, spent more than 10 years fighting to get the amendment on the ballot and now take a proprietary interest in the outcome of each year’s funding bill.
So sportsmen’s groups aren’t giving accolades to House members for their move to reduce the Mississippi Northwoods project funding by $7 million. The property is seen as a rare chance to hold together a large tract of land and prevent its ecosystem from being overrun by development.
The Trust for Public Land (TPL) is among the outdoors groups crying foul. The group negotiated an option with the large Minnesota-based industrial timber landowner Potlatch Corp. and hopes the state will have the necessary amount of money to close. Becca Nash, a program coordinator for TPL, said $14 million was a “best guess estimate” while the project is being subjected to multiple appraisals.
“We are disappointed in this amendment,” Nash said while testifying in the House Legacy Division last week.
Money for carp
As desirable as the project is, state lawmakers are also looking for money to deal with the threat of aquatic invasive species, particularly the Asian silver carp moving into the state’s waters. The gravity of that threat warrants some changes to the Lessard-Sams recommendations, said House Legacy Division Chairman Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City.
“Lessard-Sams does an excellent job,” Urdahl said. But, he added, “If the Legislature looks at what the Lessard-Sams has given us and decides something needs to be done differently, it’s our prerogative to do that.”
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Nelson Township, spent part of last week at a symposium in St. Paul with state and federal officials and scientists discussing the invasive species problem. He said the pressure on lawmakers to act on the carp as well as other invasives like zebra mussels is ratcheting up.
“We need to address this,” said Torkelson after the hearing at which his amendment to the Legacy bill was adopted. “It’s a ready source of funds for the work, so that’s why the amendment was presented as it was today.”
Reservations about terms of land deal
The Mississippi Northwoods has always been a tough sell in the eyes of House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Denny McNamara, R-Hastings. A couple of features make it one of the most unusual projects that Lessard-Sams and the Legislature have countenanced in the Legacy’s tenure: After the sale, the state would transfer the land to Crow Wing County. That’s in part to avoid any obligation to give the county payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) for the loss of the land from local property tax rolls. And it’s also because there is a sizeable contingent of GOP legislators who oppose any net increase in the state’s land holdings.
That has raised concerns about the state’s ability to make sure the land is maintained for fishing and hunting, as the Lessard-Sams council’s mission requires.
And cost remains a sticking point as well: The House has budgeted for only half of the recommended $14 million purchase price — in part to free up dollars for invasive species spending and because appraisals of the land have not yet been completed.
Torkelson said there’s still plenty of time to address the Mississippi Northwoods project, noting that the state’s option doesn’t expire until Dec. 31. That means that Potlatch won’t be trying to sell the land privately until that time at the earliest.
“I’m not trying to kill the Mississippi Northwoods project,” Torkelson said. “But there are a lot of questions surrounding the price tag and the timing of that project.”
Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede said the House’s approach increases the risk that the project won’t go through.
“To think this is somehow potentially an artificial deadline is a dangerous game to play,” Thiede said.
The Senate has taken a hands-off approach to the Mississippi Northwoods project so far. On Thursday the chamber unanimously passed its Legacy bill, which includes full funding for the land purchase but just $1.8 million for the aquatic invasive species research center.
Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said the House and Senate will most likely need to resolve their differences in conference committee.
“I’m moving forward just as we did and always have,” Ingebrigtsen said of the spending proposals in the Senate bill. “Will that change in a conference committee? Well, that remains to be seen.”