Lessard-Sams recommendations include money for metro parks, aquatic invasives
After months of controversy at the state Capitol about Legacy funding, a citizen/legislator panel has arrived at an apparent compromise to recommend outdoors projects paid for with dedicated sales tax dollars.
On September 20, the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council voted to recommend $102 million in allocations for habitat projects throughout the state that will be paid for out of the Outdoor Heritage Fund. The money is tied to the Legacy amendment that was approved by Minnesota voters in 2008 to increase the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent. The proceeds are allocated to four different funds that pay for clean water, parks and trails, arts and culture and habitat projects.
Unlike the three other funds, the habitat projects that are paid out of the Outdoor Heritage Fund are appropriated on an annual basis. And while the state lawmakers must ultimately appropriate the money by law, influential activists have long asserted that the decision-making should be entrusted to the Lessard-Sams panel and not altered in the political process at the Capitol. (The panel’s members are appointed by the governor, House and Senate.)
The degree to which the 12-member Lessard-Sams council has the final say on selecting the projects was a question that produced considerable acrimony during the 2013 legislative session, particularly in the House. The House brought a bill to conference committee that included projects to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS) and habitat improvements in Twin Cities parks. Those projects became the subject of prolonged controversy because they weren’t originally recommended by the Lessard-Sams panel.
Gov. Mark Dayton and House and Senate leaders initially agreed to the additional projects. But while the bill was awaiting his signature, sportsmen and conservation groups pressed their opposition to the additions and reminded Dayton that he had campaigned on giving deference to the Lessard-Sams. Ultimately Dayton line-item vetoed both.
Dayton’s action reaffirmed the influence of the Lessard-Sams council over the Legislature. But what was lost in the reaction to the vetoes was that Dayton implicitly sent the council a message. Dayton wrote in his veto letter that his decision didn’t “reflect a lack of support for the two projects.” He asked the Lessard-Sams council to “reconsider these two projects when it assembles its next funding recommendations.”
Controversial projects won funding
While AIS and metro-area parks remained very controversial in the funding selection process for 2014 that wrapped up on Sept. 20, they were eventually included in the year’s funding recommendations. A third project that had roiled the Lessard-Sams council for more than a year – a land-purchase proposal from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa – also received funding.
Brian Rice, who lobbies for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, said the 2013 vetoes were disappointing, but added that they played a role in shaping the 2014 recommendations.
“I think actually the governor’s veto message was very positive,” Rice said. “He asked the parks and the AIS… to go back and go through the process. He also asked the council, without telling them, to pay serious consideration to it.”
In all, the Lessard-Sams group received 56 funding requests worth more than $269 million. The $102 million worth of recommendations are spread out over 36 projects.
There were several projects, ranging from prairie recovery to aquatic habitat restoration, for which all 12 members showed some amount of support. But during the months-long vetting process this summer and fall, the council remained divided on the AIS, metro parks and Fond du Lac projects.
When it came time to work out their differences, the council agreed to automatically give a certain percentage of funding to projects that at least nine members allotted money to. Given that numerous metro parks and AIS projects only garnered funding from four or five members, their prospects looked bleak. But each member was given $2.1 million that was carved out of projects that had made the nine-member cut. They were able spend that money on the projects of their choosing, subject to the approval of the rest of the council. It was during the addition of 11th hour amendments that AIS, metro parks and the Fond du Lac projects received funding.
The final set of allocations was approved 10-0 with two members absent. Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, called the results a success.
“To walk out of there with some AIS, some metro and the Fond du Lac fully funded, I think, is a big deal,” Hansen said.
Discretionary allocations closed gap
The AIS proposals raised concerns among some conservation activists about the original intent of the Legacy amendment. Influential voices on outdoors issues such as Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Tom Landwehr contended that the Outdoor Heritage Fund money was intended by voters to be used for buying land or easements for conservation purposes. Projects that create decontamination stations to wash zebra mussels off boats run counter to the Legacy’s purpose, he told Capitol Report earlier this month.
Only five members of Lessard-Sams initially allocated money for the main AIS proposal, in which the Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations (COLA) asked for $25 million to help local governments statewide set up decontamination stations.
But Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chose to spend $1 million of his $2.1 million on the COLA proposal. Some members of the council assailed the AIS projects because the chances that boaters would comply with the requirements seemed low and the spread of zebra mussels appeared to be inevitable. But Ingebrigtsen said the COLA proposal was worth pursuing as a slimmed-down pilot project.
“I put $1 million toward that satellite program,” Ingebrigtsen said. “I think we should try something like that instead of a hodge-podge in which one county applies for it and the other one doesn’t and all of a sudden we’re $25 million down and aren’t really doing any good.”
Three other Lessard-Sams members steered some of their money to the COLA project for a grand total of $3.65 million. Two other AIS projects, one from the DNR to address Asian carp and the other from the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, failed to win funding.
On the parks issue, five of the 11 projects requested by metro parks organizations received funding, according to an analysis by Rice’s law firm.
A number of metro-area parks proposals received money in much the same way as the COLA proposal. The requests for funding from Twin Cities park agencies were criticized by some members of the council, who believed money for such projects should come from of the parks and trails portion of the Legacy. Rice said metro parks advocates made the case that 30,000 acres of the 54,000 acres of metro park land is natural reserve land.
“The nomenclature is parks. But all of these park agencies are not only parks — they manage these natural habitat areas in the metro areas,” Rice said.
Minneapolis Parks had asked for $865,000 for the Theodore Wirth Regional Park. Only four of the 12 Lessard-Sams members allocated any funding for it, putting it far below the threshold for automatic funding. But Lessard-Sams Chair David Hartwell allotted $600,000 of his $2.1 million to the project. Another project for habitat improvement at Minneapolis’s Lake Nokomis failed to receive funding.
The Fond du Lac Band asked for $2.9 million to acquire 956 acres and restore another 271 acres of land on the northeastern Minnesota reservation. The proposal had been controversial because of concerns about how treaty rights would affect public access to hunting and fishing.
The proposal was below the threshold with only seven members allocating funding for it. But the proposal got nearly its full amount during the amendment stage, with member Sue Olson allotting her entire $2.1 million and Hansen chipping in $700,000.