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Sporting groups celebrate environmental victory
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Hunters and anglers want to use money from the Environmental Trust Fund solely for conservation and habitat restoration. Some lawmakers who control the fund think it should also pay for environmental research and education. (MPR Photo/Lorna Benson)
The odds are good that this legislative session will be remembered more for its partisan rancor than its reforms. But as the dust begins to settle on this thorny moment in Minnesota politics, some outdoors groups say the session did produce at least one long overdue environmental reform. During the special session, lawmakers passed a bill that sets the stage for changes in the way the state doles out lottery proceeds for environmental projects.

St. Paul, Minn. — At first blush, the law doesn't sound like a major reform; it simply creates a task force to review and revise how money is being spent from the Environmental Trust Fund, the fund established when the state lottery was formed in 1988.

But the task force's work is expected to drastically reduce the power and influence of 20 lawmakers who currently decide which environmental projects to fund. The lawmakers, 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans, are members of the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources or LCMR.

Months before the session started, Gov. Pawlenty announced that he wanted to take away the LCMR's decision-making power and turn it over to citizens. The governor said lawmakers were spending the money on pet projects and they didn't have a long-term conservation strategy.

Sporting and angling groups loved the governor's idea. Matt Holland, with Pheasants Forever, says it's clear to him how the trust fund money should be spent.

There just was not much appetite in the Senate to turn $35 million over to a group of citizens and having no legislative oversight over how that money was spent.
- Sen. Tom Bakk

"We have increasing pressures on the land, whether you're talking about our lakes, our rivers, our prairies, our wetlands, our forests, and we need to continue to find ways to do things better and better target our limited dollars," says Holland.

Holland says he doesn't doubt that the LCMR lawmakers worked hard and have good intentions. But he thinks citizens can do a better job.

Ron Nargang agrees. He's the state director of the Nature Conservancy. Nargang says it's been challenging at times dealing with legislators who are used to holding lots of hearings before making a decision.

"You know to be very candid, you have to go in with big proposals to make it worth the time and energy that need to be expended to succeed there, just because of the way the process is structured," says Nargang.

LCMR lawmakers heard these criticisms and many more during the protracted legislative session. Still, most weren't convinced they should hand over their decision-making authority.

Republican Sen. Dennis Frederickson of New Ulm is on the LCMR Executive Committee. He says lawmakers do have a legitimate spending strategy. It just isn't the same as the governor's and his supporters who want more habitat money.

"The groups that were pursuing change have a much narrower vision of appropriate spending from the Environmental Trust Fund than I do and many other environmental groups," says Frederickson. "Those groups have large constituencies primarily of hunters and anglers."

Frederickson says LCMR members believe it's constitutionally valid to spend some of the trust fund money on environmental research and education. The commission has also approved money for renewable energy projects.

Frederickson says he fears that a citizen's group wouldn't be as inclined to see the long-term state benefit of those types of projects.

Lawmakers had other concerns too. DFL Sen. Tom Bakk is from Cook. He says unlike lawmakers who can be voted out of office, it's harder to hold a citizen's group accountable for their spending decisions.

"There just was not much appetite in the Senate to turn $35 million over to a group of citizens and having no legislative oversight over how that money was spent," says Bakk.

Still, LCMR members failed to convince other lawmakers to leave their authority intact. The Legislature approved a compromise bill that will likely lead to more citizen involvement in Environmental Trust Fund spending.

Spokesman Brian McClung says it's a victory for Gov. Pawlenty.

"There were no people who came and testified in opposition to the governor's reform proposal," says McClung. "The only people at that meeting who were opposed to it were the legislators themselves, the people who currently have control of the system."

But some environmental groups say just because they didn't oppose the governor's plan, doesn't mean they think it was a good investment of the Legislature's time.

Ann Hunt, with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, which represents 90 environmental groups in Minnesota, says the group did not take an official position on who should control the Environmental Trust Fund. But Hunt says for more than half of her membership, it clearly was not their number one priority this session.

"I think that the LCMR reform distracted Legislators from some really critical issues that need to be addressed," says Hunt.

According to Hunt, the time spent on LCMR came at the expense of the Clean Water Initiative, a proposal to raise $80 million to clean up Minnesota rivers and lakes through a new sewer hookup fee. She says environmental groups also wanted lawmakers to restore funding cuts to the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, so those agencies could keep up with enforcement of ATV laws and pollution investigations.

In contrast, Hunt says the plan to reform Environmental Trust Fund spending is small potatoes.

"It just seemed to be an idea that was thrown out and there wasn't really a lot of groups that were initially maybe championing it or didn't really think that it was something that was going to be coming out and being part of the end-game at the end of the Legislative session nine months later," says Hunt.

The debate over who controls the Environmental Trust Fund may be confusing for some environmental groups today. But Sen. Bakk says it becomes much more clear if you look 10 years down the road. Lottery officials are projecting that within that time frame, the fund could grow to an estimated $100 million per biennium.

Bakk says that's a huge pot of stable money dedicated to environmental projects. He says he's not surprised that Gov. Pawlenty made reforming the fund one of his top priorities this session.

"I think for the governor, like all governors, they want to make their mark with some kind of reforms and create some kind of a list of legacy-type issues," says Bakk. "I think I guess if I was governor I'd be looking to make some major policy reforms that someday people will look back on."

Bakk says if the task force recommends more citizen involvement as expected, people might one day look back on Gov. Pawlenty's changes to the Environmental Trust Fund, in much the same way as they view Rudy Perpich and school choice or Arne Carlson and MinnesotaCare.

For now, the legislative task force that's looking into Environmental Trust Fund changes is still being formed. The group is scheduled to report it's recommendations to the Legislature early in the next session.