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Bipartisan proposal could secure stable funding for soil and water conservation districts

It’s not quite a tale as old as time, but it is one that seems to come up every legislative session, at least for the last several years: We have 88 soil and water conservation districts in Minnesota, but we’ve never firmly figured out how to pay for their work.

Funded through the Board of Water and Soil Resources, the districts receive no statutory appropriation, have no taxing authority (despite being elected at the local level), and can see major fluctuations in their budgets from year to year, making long-range planning around local water issues a tricky proposition.

Resources have been shifted about from biennium to biennium to pay for the districts, with last year’s move toward dipping into the Legacy Amendment’s Clean Water Fund proving quite controversial.

So there’s an air of “Let’s put an end to this once and for all” to HF3719, a bill sponsored by Rep. Liz Reyer (DFL-Eagan). It would establish a new state aid program for soil and water conservation districts, distributing $22 million annually to them. Of the amount, 70% would be distributed equally among all districts and 30% distributed according to each district’s proportional share of nonpublic land.

“This is the opportunity to provide predictable, stable funding,” Reyer said. “We can fix this now.”

On Friday, the House Property Tax Division laid the bill over for possible inclusion in the division report to the House Taxes Committee. Its companion, SF3913, is sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope). It awaits action in the Senate Taxes Committee.

Judging from its bipartisan support and the endorsement of Gov. Tim Walz, who included it in his tax proposals for this session, odds look favorable for the proposed legislation.

“Our state funding over the past several years has been a struggle,” said Chuck Rau, vice president of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. “We estimate that SWCDs across the state require $45 million annually to meet our obligations under state statute. The $22 million would significantly reduce the funding gap to meet the needs of our districts. This would also allow us to leverage far more federal dollars into our districts. In my district of Benton, we would leverage three federal dollars for every one state dollar.”

“Water resources are an asset for the entire state, and not just a local community,” said Rep. Jerry Hertaus (R-Greenfield). “And the local community shouldn’t be saddled with the obligation of fixing impaired waters on local taxpayers.”

“I think a key here is stability,” said Rep. Paul Anderson (R-Starbuck). “Having to depend upon funding on a two-year biennial basis is not secure. And in terms of retaining staff, this long-term funding source is the way to go.”

“Our water is precious,” said Rep. Aisha Gomez (DFL-Mpls). “It’s what connects us. We are its stewards. … Using local aids to solve local problems is a good approach.”

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