Chambers differ over outdoor heritage fund
The Minnesota House is getting pushback as it seeks to reset the calendar for appropriating Legacy dollars for hunting and fishing habitat.
The Legacy bill — which spends the proceeds of a dedicated sales tax that Minnesota voters approved in 2008 — comprises four separate funds that benefit the environment and culture. Three of those funds deal with clean water, parks and trails, and arts and culture, and are appropriated by lawmakers every two years. But bills for the Outdoor Heritage Fund have been passed on an annual basis based on recommendations from a panel of legislators and citizens called the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House Legacy Finance Committee, has teed off one of the session’s main debates on Legacy funding by proposing to put the Outdoor Heritage Fund appropriations on the same two-year cycle as the three other funds. Kahn said the move would reduce time spent judging application and free up the Lessard-Sams council members to do more oversight and evaluation of the projects that have been funded.
“One of the decisions that I’ve made… is that we would do, as every other budget is throughout the legislative process, a biennial budget instead of an annual budget. In the course of doing it as a biennial budget, we kept everything that came to us as recommendations from the Lessard-Sams Council. Some of them, we’ve spread over a little bit,” Kahn said.
For funding proposals that are intended to be multiple-year projects, Kahn put funding in for the second year of the biennium. She also is leaving $33 million in cash on the bottom line in case additional needs for funding emerge later this year or next.
For the current round of funding, the Lessard-Sams council received 43 requests that were estimated to cost $227 million. The Outdoor Heritage Fund has about $96.8 million to spend for the 2014 fiscal year.
Conservation groups: Keep annual budget
In a session where lawmakers are grappling with a $627 million deficit for the 2014-2015 budget period, the Legacy cash is an unusual luxury. But there’s tension over whether Lessard-Sams or the Legislature calls the shots over how the money is spent. And the annual versus biennial issue is the most pronounced fork in the road. Lance Ness of the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance testified that the Lessard-Sams panel has developed its process in a way that suits the larger conservation community. He said he’s not in favor of the Legislature changing the rules of the game.
“We feel there is a divide between the legislative branch and the council,” Ness said.
Some of the state’s biggest conservation groups have lined up to oppose Kahn’s biennial budget approach. Peggy Ladner, the state director for the Nature Conservancy, said the change would hamper their group’s ability to adjust complex conservation projects. The Nature Conservancy works with other non-profit groups on its projects and needs to make changes more frequently than every two years, she added.
“[The annual approach] insures maximum flexibility with respect to program implementation and collaboration on emerging and unforeseen conservation issues,” Ladner wrote in a letter the Legacy committee.
House departs from recommendations
In addition to changing the timetable, the House has also added projects that weren’t recommended by Lessard-Sams. Most notably, the bill contains $6.4 million for habitat in metropolitan regional parks that wasn’t given a hearing in Lessard-Sams. Reps. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, and Anna Wills, R-Apple Valley, introduced the funding as a bill, which was subsequently adopted into the Legacy bill.
House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Chair Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said habitat is worthy of funding, as ducks fly in and out of the region.
“We are on the Mississippi Fly Way, and I don’t understand why some folks don’t understand that,” Wagenius said.
Groups like Ducks Unlimited have dissented on the House’s decision to advance projects that weren’t recommended by Lessard-Sams.
While the House is placing its own stamp on the Legacy bill, the Senate will likely take a more traditional tack. Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, who chairs a subcommittee of the Finance Committee devoted to Legacy dollars, said he doesn’t support the switch to biennial appropriations.
“I have no reason to think that the Lessard-Sams process has worked out any way other than it’s supposed to. To be going for two-year appropriations is out of line,” said Saxhaug, who is also a member of Lessard-Sams.
The Senate’s Legacy subcommittee will likely advance its Legacy bills in the next couple of weeks, with a conference committee to follow to work out the differences.
“DU fully supports and believes in the annual public [Lessard-Sams] review and recommendation process that occurs over a period of six months or more,” said Tim Roble, state chair for Ducks Unlimited.
Parks and trails
Two years ago, a pitched legislative battle emerged at the Capitol regarding Legacy funding for parks and trails. A group of greater Minnesota parks advocates contended that their share of the parks funding was too small and won more funding over the objections of metro area parks interests.
A task force that was convened last summer by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released a report recommending a breakdown of 40 percent for the metro, 40 percent for the DNR parks program and 20 percent for a greater Minnesota parks grant program. The recommendation drew applause from greater Minnesota, but Minneapolis Park Board Chair John Erwin swiftly panned the change, arguing that the 40 percent figure was too small in light of the 64 percent share of Legacy fund taxes generated in the metro area.
The latest attempt to bring peace in the valley emerged on Tuesday night in the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee when Wagenius introduced an amendment that would base funding decisions on assessments of specific projects rather than regional allocations. The bill funds roughly $83 million for 2014 and 2015. Saxhaug said he tends to support a project-specific approach.
Kahn also thinks moving away from regional percentages is a better way to make decisions. “Rigorous percentages just don’t make sense,” she said.
If the projects in the House bill are converted into percentages, the metro area improves to 43 percent, while greater Minnesota grant program stays at 20 percent. The DNR is knocked down to 37 percent, which is an unwelcome development for the agency, according to Bob Meier, the DNR’s policy and government relations director.
“It looks like we’re being penalized for our work in bringing the groups together [to reach a consensus],” Meier said. “We hope at the end of the day we can improve the bill.”
Arts and culture
While parks, prairies and theater are the usual fare of Legacy bills, Kahn has inserted an item into the arts and culture bill that was the talk of the Legacy Committee on Wednesday. Under the label of cultural heritage, Kahn directs the city of St. Paul to issue a liquor license for the Rathskeller in the Capitol basement. An extensive renovation restored the ornaments and detail of the dining hall’s original Bavarian beer garden style. Kahn, who has introduced myriad pieces of liquor legislation in the House, said the move to sell beer and wine would be historically and culturally appropriate.
“We’re totally certain that, when the Rathskeller was built and decorated as it was, wine and beer were served there through Prohibition,” Kahn said. “In the Legacy bill, we’re really just restoring the legacy of the Rathskeller.”