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House bows to convention, passes stripped-down Legacy bill

Just as custom and practice leads legislators to call odd-numbered years “budget years” and even-numbered ones “bonding years,” so is the divvying up of monies from the four Legacy Amendment funds customarily a biannual affair.

Of the four Legacy funds, only the one devoted to outdoor heritage is allocated each year. Meanwhile, the decisions on those dealing with clean water, parks and trails, and arts and cultural heritage are usually reserved for odd-numbered years.

Yet, this year, the House decided that 2022 should be different.

It passed a bill on April 25 that not only included $159 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund to be distributed to projects throughout the state, but would provide extensions and funding for pandemic-slowed projects in the other three areas.

However, when it made its way to the Senate, the bill was stripped of $66 million in proposed outlays from the Clean Water Fund, the Parks and Trails Fund, and the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. With the Senate sponsor, Sen. Carrie Ruud (R-Breezy Point), arguing for maintaining “the integrity of the process,” that body passed the streamlined bill 55-9 Tuesday.

And, on Thursday, the House voted to concur with the Senate’s amendments and passed HF3438/SF3701* on an 89-40 vote. No conference committee tried to reconcile the bills. Instead, the Senate proposal – which contains identical language regarding the Outdoor Heritage Fund – is on its way to Gov. Tim Walz.

“It was a little bit disappointing,” said Rep. Leon Lillie (DFL-North St. Paul), the House sponsor. “We were hoping that the Senate would agree to do some of the funding, but there was not an appetite across the street to do that. And that’s unfortunate. Some of the money was going to go toward the lead problems we have in homes. And, in parks and trails, some of the projects that were delayed due to COVID weren’t finished, and we could have done that.”

Rep. Dean Urdahl listens to Rep. Leon Lillie explain the Senate amendments to HF3438, the omnibus Legacy finance bill, prior to its re-passage by the House May 19. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)

Approved by Minnesota voters in a 2008 referendum, the Legacy Amendment to Minnesota’s constitution stipulates that 0.375% of state sales taxes be divvied up thus: 33% to the Outdoor Heritage Fund, 33% to the Clean Water Fund, 19.75% to the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, and 14.25% to the Parks and Trails Fund.

If this year’s appropriations become law, the $159 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund will be meted out in fiscal year 2023 according to the recommendations of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

According to the state constitution, the fund may be spent only “to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife.” The $159 million would fund a variety of restoration, protection and enhancement projects, with $83.4 earmarked for habitat projects, $35 million for prairies, $26.8 million for wetlands, and $13.3 million for forests.

The Department of Natural Resources would oversee the two largest projects funded by the Outdoor Heritage Fund, its Conservation Partners Legacy Grant Program ($9.4 million) and the next phase of its Metro Big Rivers project ($8.2 million).

The bill also includes a provision allowing the Clean Water Council to make recommendations for uses of the Clean Water Fund on an annual basis and in response to the February budget forecast, should it choose to do so. It would also extend the end date by a year for:

  • an Outdoor Heritage Fund grant for a fisheries habitat protection project;
  • a Clean Water Fund grant for a sanitary sewer collection and treatment facility in St. Louis County;
  • support for the activities of the Parks and Trails Legacy Advisory Committee;
  • a grant for Crookston’s Central Park project; and
  • an Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund appropriation for the Minnesota Historical Society.

Left on the cutting room floor from the House bill was an allocation of $47.4 million from the Clean Water Fund to 14 particular projects, most dealing with either grants for lead water service line replacement or the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

Also taken out of the bill by the Senate were House-approved increases for projects approved last session, adding $12.1 million from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and $6.5 million from the Parks and Trails Fund.

“Although the provisions for the Clean Water Fund were stripped out – and they had to be, because they weren’t vetted well – it’s disappointing that we couldn’t break this mold of passing whatever the council sends to us,” said Rep. Steve Green (R-Fosston). “This bill purchases over 8,000 acres of land and 18,000 acres of easements. Now the state and federal government own a third of the state.”

“We’re in a Legislature and it’s divided, and sometimes we don’t get everything we want,” Lillie said. “But I think it’s a really good product in the end. I’ve often said, as politicians, if you can’t win an election on what’s in a Legacy bill, especially the first year, you’re a terrible politician. There’s great stuff in there.”

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