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Lawmakers take aim at invasive species law

Slamming a law inscribed by a previous Legislature can be a bonding experience for lawmakers from the same party.

It’s trickier, however, if a legislator pushing a repeal-and-replace bill is presenting that proposal to a committee chair who just so happened to write the law in the first place.

That’s the scenario in the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, where Republicans are backing a number of proposals to kill or significantly alter laws meant to curb the spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS) in Minnesota lakes and streams.

The number of bills to that effect, and the apparent momentum behind them, was such that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) put off implementation of new requirements for training and trailer decals earlier this year, citing “legislative interest.” That’s one way of putting it.

Another would be the more frank assessment that lawmakers like Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, and some others in his caucus think the law is wholly unworkable, an unnecessary burden for Minnesota fishermen and potentially damaging to the state tourism industry.

They might want to tread lightly, though, in making that case to Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who chairs the environmental finance committee and authored the AIS prevention law in 2012.

Drazkowski offered one of two bills meant to rectify perceived problems with the DNR’s new program, which would have implemented mandatory education training, signified by the display of a trailer decal, starting in July 2015. His proposal, which has the support of the Minnesota Hospitality Association, functions as a straight repeal of the current law.

“In its current form, it seems to be frightening guests and potential guests,” testified Dan McElroy, head of the hospitality lobbying group.

Drazkowski suggested that an alternative approach could work on a more voluntary basis, and he floated the idea of signs posted next to lakes and streams that already have documented cases of zebra mussels, which have been known to spread by attaching themselves to the bottoms of boats and docks.

“It could be something as simple as that, focused on really the place we need to focus on,” Drazkowski said. “And that’s those lakes where the problem already exists, rather than burdening everybody in such a broad, sweeping way.”

The DNR has already signed a $300,000 contract with a Stillwater software firm to design and run an online quiz program that would have become mandatory for prospective fishermen. In light of the pressure to consider alternatives, the DNR has already begun negotiating with that firm to potentially buy-out the remainder of the contract.

McNamara, for his part, acknowledged that the law he wrote in 2012 was “not going to work” in its current form, but seemed reluctant to scrap the program wholesale. He was more positively inclined toward a bill brought by Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, which would make a number of more incremental changes to the DNR approach. In Uglem’s bill, which the state agency supports, training and trailer labels would go into effect in January 2016, and enforcement for noncompliance would not kick in until the following year. Violators would be subject to a $25 fine, instead of the current law’s language, which could allow for criminal penalties of fishermen found to be in breach of the requirement.

Here, too, McNamara said he felt Uglem’s bill had missed the mark, and that the $25 amount is too slight, though he admitted “some of my colleagues would disagree.”

Both bills were laid over for possible inclusion in the committee’s omnibus bill, though it was clear the panel — and its chairman — were still split on the proper remedy. In the Senate, Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, has carried the companion to Uglem’s bill past one committee hurdle; the companion to Drazkowski’s repeal has yet to receive a committee hearing.

The Mazzepa Republican also walked through a third bill on Thursday, this one an attempt to strike some state aid to counties for work on AIS prevention. That provision, passed as part of a DFL-authored tax bill, provides $4.5 million to counties this year, and $10 million each year thereafter.

Drazkowski said he had only learned of the aid when officials in one county told him they had received a check they had not expected or sought.

Several county officials testified in opposition to Drazkowski’s legislation, saying the new money was going directly toward inspection, signage and other related costs, and was not being rolled in to their general fund county budgets.

McNamara observed that the AIS aid, originally a Senate position, only made the final bill as part of a conference committee decision “in the dark of night,” and also questioned the wisdom of distributing funds at the county level.

“I don’t know,” McNamara said, “if we should be spending 10 million for aquatic invasive species and keeping the DNR out of the loop.”

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