Regional tensions that flared this year loom once again
As a citizen-legislator panel puts together its next round of recommendations for roughly $100 million in legislative spending on habitat for hunting and fishing projects, its members find themselves confronting ghosts from the 2013 legislative session.
The 2013 Legacy bill, which spends dedicated sales tax dollars on cultural and outdoors projects, embodied a battle that only ended after a pair of rare line-item vetoes by Gov. Mark Dayton. The vetoes stood as a rebuke to House Democrats after a session-long tug-of-war over the Legislature’s right to amend the spending recommendations of the powerful Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
The council is now embarking on its annual task of identifying projects that will fulfill the mission expressed in the 2008 Legacy constitutional amendment: to “restore, protect and enhance” habitat for fish, game and wildlife.
So far the 12 people who serve on Lessard-Sams have received $269 million in requests from nonprofits and government agencies for the portion of the Legacy that deals with habitat. And those 2014 funding requests notably include habitat projects located in the Twin Cities metropolitan region — projects similar to the ones Dayton stripped out of the 2013 bill, which suggests that another regional throw-down could emerge.
At odds over mission
One of the central tensions in the politics of Legacy money has arisen from conflicting views about the extent to which the Lessard-Sams’ decisions are binding on Dayton and the Legislature. That disagreement came to a head last session when the House advanced a Legacy bill that contained $6.3 million in funding for wetlands, forests and other habitat in the Metropolitan Council’s regional parks system. That proposal quickly became notorious among Legacy watchdogs, because it wasn’t part of Lessard-Sams’ original set of recommendations.
Many of the outdoors advocates who spent 10 years lobbying to get the Legacy funding on the ballot maintain that the council’s role in deciding projects was an express condition of the Legacy’s passage in 2008. Near the end of this year’s legislative session, as the House and Senate stood at an impasse on the question of the inviolability of Lessard-Sams, Dayton agreed with legislative leaders to include the metro parks funding. But shortly after the session ended, he reversed his position and stripped out the project, along with $3 million for aquatic invasive species funding that also wasn’t advanced by Lessard-Sams. Conservation advocates like former Sen. Bob Lessard reminded Dayton that he had promised to honor the Lessard-Sams recommendations while running for governor.
Regional tensions again evident
With the veto fading into legislative history, the habitat funding for metropolitan parks was once again on Lessard-Sams’ agenda as the council gathered Thursday at the Capitol.
The Metropolitan Council submitted an umbrella request for funding that consisted of 13 wildlife and fishery restoration and enhancement projects in the metro area. Several of the projects in the proposal were also submitted as stand-alone projects – which, according to the grumblings of some Lessard-Sams members, created duplication and confusion. The council elected to jettison the umbrella proposal and hear the metro park habitat proposals individually.
Lessard-Sams Chair David Hartwell made a break from last year’s Lessard-Sams process by agreeing to hear all of the submitted proposals except three projects that were voted out by the Lessard-Sams members on Thursday. That’s a break with last year, when the council declined to hear projects that failed to meet a certain threshold in members’ scoring. As a result, the panel did not even hear the metro parks proposal during last year’s round of meetings.
This week the Lessard-Sams staff released the scores that council members had assigned to each of the project requests. On the matter of the metro proposal, as with many other proposals, the council members differ significantly in their scores. Two citizen members, Jim Cox and Scott Rall, gave the metro’s umbrella project very low scores — in the 30s out of 100. Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, along with southern Minnesota attorney Susan Olson, scored the proposal in the 80s.
Rall, of Worthington, said after the hearing that some of the metro proposals were unclear and needed to be written with more specific detail. He also said that the change from the umbrella proposal to individual projects will affect how he judges the metro projects. “I’ve said all along that those projects that are submitted individually have a much better chance of being funded than they would [if they are submitted] collectively,” Rall said.
Some Lessard-Sams members have objected that the metro parks should apply for Legacy funding from the parks and trails portion rather than the Outdoor Heritage Fund. But Kirk Pederson, a contract lobbyist for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Department, told the council that some of the land, such as areas adjacent to state parks, fails to pass constitutional muster for parks and trails funding.
“They do not meet the constitutional criteria of being a park of statewide or regional significance,” Pederson said. “It can’t just be something that looks like a park and happens to be located in the metro area.”
Funding cycle disagreement
There’s another controversy from the 2013 legislative session that’s hanging over the Lessard-Sams proceedings. House Legacy Chair Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, last year wrote a Legacy bill that changed the Outdoor Heritage Fund’s appropriation cycle from an annual to a biennial basis, in keeping with the approach used in other Legacy fund spending.
Kahn met with stiff resistance from a number of the conservation organizations that request Legacy funds, such as The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited. The conference report that emerged at the end of session ultimately maintained the annual funding schedule. But it called for Lessard-Sams to examine transitioning to biennial appropriations starting in fiscal year 2016. The report is due to the Legislature on Jan. 1.
On Thursday the Lessard-Sams council agreed to contract with the Management Analysis and Development office of the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget to prepare the budget study. The contract is for $22,625.
Kahn attended the hearing and reprised the argument that she made during the session, which was that the grant-making process is difficult and time-consuming and should be stretched out over a longer period than a year. She said the biennial approach would give the members more time to do oversight and analysis of Legacy projects. She said lawmakers would still be able to make changes in non-budget years.
“The biennial budget gives you more flexibility, not less flexibility,” Kahn said.
During the session, the Senate rejected Kahn’s biennial approach. At Thursday’s meeting, the inter-chamber differences became evident again when council member and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, recorded one of the two no votes against the contract with Management Analysis and Development.
Beyond the controversies at the Legislature, the council members are faced with addressing the trend of diminishing wetlands and other natural areas. The national watchdog organization Environmental Working Group reported this week that 1,142 square miles has been lost to agricultural production in Minnesota and the Dakotas between 2008 and 2012. Both high commodity prices and federal crop insurance policies have contributed to the decision by a growing number of farmers to convert land in conservation programs into production agriculture.
Hansen called attention to the EWG findings, which were reported Wednesday in the Star Tribune, and said that the council’s methods for approving projects should be mindful of trends in agriculture and land use.
“It’s important, when we have proposals that deal with these things, that we have in the back of our minds that things are changing pretty quickly in our state,” Hansen said, “and whether it’s a one-year or two-year cycle, the responsibility we have is to bring that into our decision-making.”