Two marquee pieces of environmental legislation in the 2012 session owe their victories in no small part to horse trading between Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature.
While the school trust lands bill and the game and fish bill involved separate issues, they shared a politically symbiotic relationship in which one could not win a gubernatorial signature without the other.
“The passing of the game and fish bill had a lot to do with the governor feeling comfortable signing the school trust lands bill,” conceded Sen. Benjamin Kruse, R-Brooklyn Park.
Kruse was the chief Senate sponsor of the school trust lands bill, which proposed to overhaul the management of the 2.5 million acres in public lands held in trust to benefit K-12 schools. The bill was the culmination of years of scrutiny by a handful of legislators regarding the state Department of Natural Resources’ management practices. Since Minnesota became a state, the school trust lands have been logged and mined, with the proceeds going to public schools.
Kruse’s bill, the House version of which was sponsored by Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell, was popular on a bipartisan basis. It passed 110-21 in the House and 42-20 in the Senate. The bill ignited a turf battle with the Dayton administration DNR, however, because its initial versions sought to remove the lands from the agency’s purview. Although the bill was changed considerably throughout the legislative process, the conference report that emerged drew a written rebuke from the Dayton administration. Dayton and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr opened their letter by stating “strong opposition” to the bill.
“During the course of testimony on the bill, many references were made to DNR’s trust management decisions and actions from the distant past, with little acknowledgement of the improvements made in recent years,” Dayton and Landwehr wrote.
The bill establishes a legislative commission on the permanent school fund, which holds the school trust land funds. It also creates a director of school trust lands who will be housed in the Department of Administration, not the DNR. The director would be able to contest DNR’s management decisions to the legislative commission. Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, who has worked closely on school trust land issues for the last three years, noted that the DNR found itself in a weak position because of the Kruse bill’s substantial and potentially veto-proof support from both sides of the aisle, particularly in the House.
If the school trust bill was a fait accompli for the Legislature, that left the administration and the DNR to try to cut a deal that would allow the agency to gain something as well.
“We could have had a veto override,” Dittrich noted. “So I think the DNR all of a sudden said: ‘This might be happening this year. What can we get that helps swallow that bad pill?’”
The answer: a long-sought increase in hunting and fishing license fees.
DNR had pushed fee increases
The DNR set out this session to get lawmakers to increase the fees because its Game and Fish Fund, which is supported by the fees, is projected to run out of money by July 2013. Part of the problem is the fees haven’t been increased in 11 years.
The proposal to increase the license fees had been an uphill climb for the DNR all session long. On the plus side, both House Environment Chairman Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, and Senate Environment Chairman Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, supported the DNR’s request. But their efforts were nonetheless hindered by dissent from fiscal conservatives. The fee increases only received an informational hearing in the House and weren’t part of the game and fish bill passed by the House before conference committee.
The fees had a scare in the Senate when Ingebrigtsen tried on the Senate floor to amend them into a House bill file, only to have the move fail, 39-27. Ingebrigtsen came back a week later and successfully inserted the fees on the second try, 36-30. The bill came out of conference with the fees intact, but the controversial nature of the legislation was evidenced by two conferees, Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, withholding their signatures from the conference report.
Dziedzic objected to a provision that drew fire from several Twin Cities legislators over requiring that law enforcement gun ranges in the metro area be made available to people taking hunter safety courses. Buesgens opposed the fees.
For Buesgens’ part, he said, “With the tens of millions going to the DNR from the Legacy Amendment, I didn’t see the need for a fee increase.”
The House narrowly passed the conference report, 68-62, on Saturday night, and it was taken up soon afterward on the Senate floor.
The Senate vote on game and fish proved to be a nail-biter. The board was held open for several minutes as intense haggling took place. The vote was locked at 27-27 for quite some time before things shook loose and the measure passed, 34-28. (Five senators were absent for the vote.)
Sources say the haggling was prompted in large part by word from the governor’s office that the school trust lands bill would be vetoed unless the game and fish fee increases were passed.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, was intensely lobbied by Dayton’s office and cast the 34th vote that got the bill over the hump. Also staying off the board until the end was Sen. Michael Jungbauer, R-East Bethel. Jungbauer had worked on the school trust issue for eight years and voted for the fee increases in the game and fish bill to help save the trust lands bill from a veto.
“Knowing that Benjamin Kruse had that bill that was sitting on the edge there with the governor and moved us forward — I’ve never voted for an increase like that in a fee, and I was hoping someone else would step up to the plate, but I didn’t want to see that bill go down either,” Jungbauer said.
Dayton signed the school trust lands bill on April 28. He signed the game and fish bill on Thursday.
“It was my impression,” Kruse said, “that the department was very passionate about getting the fee increases. Folks in the Legislature were passionate about the school trust lands. As we looked at the global picture, I think there was some going back and forth.”