Even though Minnesota faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit, there are still some much-coveted pots of money up for grabs in 2013, thanks to the Legacy amendment’s provisions for spending on outdoors and cultural projects. Differences of opinion on how the money should be spent around the state are now starting to roil around in legislative committees.
The House and Senate have different processes for proceeding with Legacy-related legislation. The House, as it’s done since 2009, has created a free-standing finance committee with jurisdiction over the Legacy accounts. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, is the new chair. In the Senate, the Legacy accounts reside in the State Government Finance and Environment and Natural Resources Finance committees. But a subcommittee of Senate Finance has been created to assemble a bill for an eventual vote by the full Senate. Senate Finance Committee Chair Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, is the subcommittee’s chair.
In the early going, there are two issues certain to spark debate. One concerns the habitat portion of Legacy money, which is paid out of the Outdoor Heritage Fund, and the other is a pre-existing regional spat over funding for parks around the state.
The Outdoor Heritage Fund, which is appropriated on an annual basis, has $96.8 million to spend for the 2014 fiscal year, based on the November economic forecast. The 12-member Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which consists of appointees from Gov. Mark Dayton and the House and Senate, received 43 proposals (worth a combined $227 million) for the current round of funding. The Lessard-Sams council made recommendations that have been introduced by Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, and Rep. Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul.
Many members of the Lessard-Sams council campaigned for a decade to get the Legacy amendment passed. And outdoors advocates, known colloquially as the hook-and-bullet crowd, have objected strenuously in the past to alterations by legislators.
House skeptical about some recommendations
The House has historically been more likely to contemplate changes to the Lessard-Sams council’s work than the Senate. Kahn has said she regards Lessard-Sams as an advisory body and isn’t likely to give their wishes a rubber stamp. “At all times, we must remember that their recommendations are just that,” Kahn said. “Which doesn’t mean that we don’t understand the work that went into making [them] and that we don’t take them seriously.”
Kahn and some House colleagues are taking a dim view of a couple of the Lessard-Sams panel’s recommendations. One of the points of tension involves the council’s decision in September not to recommend the purchase of a parcel of undeveloped land that includes a wild rice lake belonging to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa near the St. Louis River. The council was concerned about how long-standing treaties regarding land ceded to Indian tribes would affect the disposition of the land.
A number of stakeholders are hoping that state lawmakers will put the Fond du Lac land in the bill. Conservation Minnesota, an advocacy group that usually defers to the wishes of the Lessard-Sams council, supports the project, said John Tuma, a lobbyist for CM. “I think it got dismissed too quickly,” he said. “I’m hoping, given the scope of things, that it works out.”
A second point of discord: Metro interests in and around the Legislature are upset that the Lessard-Sams group panned a $6.3 million proposal from the Metropolitan Council to pay for wildlife habitat restoration and enhancement in the Metropolitan Regional Parks System. The money would be broken down into 15 projects to restore 1,822 acres.
Kahn said the metro parks proposal and the Fond du Lac project are two issues that need closer attention from the Legislature.
But Saxhaug said he doesn’t expect the Senate to make changes to the Lessard-Sams recommendations. “I think those are great proposals,” he said. “I was a big proponent of the Fond du Lac [purchase], but we will take that up next year.”
Parks funding causes regional divide
The regional dispute over parks funding was featured prominently in the debate over the 2011 Legacy bill, and it is still a sore subject. Two years ago greater Minnesota parks advocates made a successful play to increase their share of the pie from the Parks and Trails Fund. The change was made in the face of opposition from metropolitan park interests, which argued they deserve a large share of the funding because they have a larger population and serve more visitors.
A working group convened last year to make recommendations has proposed that the metro regional parks system get 40 percent of Parks and Trails Fund proceeds, with the same share going to the state Department of Natural Resources system, which consists of non-metro parks. A grants program for greater Minnesota parks would get 20 percent. That’s a significant adjustment to the first allocation passed in 2009, which awarded metro parks 48 percent of the total allocation.
The working group’s recommendations pleased greater Minnesota legislators, but have inflamed metro parks officials, especially the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.
John Erwin, president of the Minneapolis Park Board, testified Tuesday in front of the House Legacy Committee, telling the panel that it’s unfair for metro-area parks to receive only 40 percent of available funding when the metro area generates 64 percent of Legacy sales tax proceeds. He said parks users in the metro would receive 36 cents per capita in Legacy parks money, while the figure for rural parks users would be $6.67.
“The recommendation does not come close to fairly distributing resources based on sales tax contribution, based on need, data, metrics, impacts. And I’m not sure it meets the requirements that were put forth by the Legacy Amendment to begin with,” Erwin said.
Erwin said he assumes the greater Minnesota area will get more than 50 percent of the parks funding through the DNR parks system and greater Minnesota grant program. But he didn’t think the metro should get less than 45 percent. “If we went back to 45 or 47 percent, we’d be fine,” Erwin said.
The dispute is creating a split in the DFL majorities along regional lines. Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, said greater Minnesota has received far less money for parks historically, dating back to the days before passage of the Legacy amendment. “We can sit in here all day and battle about greater Minnesota and the metro,” he said, “but the fact of the matter is that we need to come to an agreement to move forward. I think what the working group came up with is palatable.”