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At Issue: Spending new proceeds

Published (2/6/2009)
By Sue Hegarty
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Last November, more than 55 percent of voters approved raising the state sales and use tax by three-eighths of 1 percent and dedicating the additional money to improving the environment and preserving the state’s cultural heritage.

This month, some of those voters will go a step further and present their ideas on spending the new tax dollars. They’ll address the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council, the statutory body responsible for sorting through some of the proposals in order to make recommendations to the Legislature.

By March, the council is to supply the House Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Division with recommended projects to receive funding. A bill will be drafted for those projects, and it must be signed into law for funding to be allocated.

Some misconceptions about the scope and authority of the council have surfaced. Council members say it’s important to note that they are charged with making recommendations for only 33 percent of the dedicated tax revenue — specifically, funded projects that should “restore, protect and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests and habitat for game, fish and wildlife.”

The remaining money will be debated among other stakeholders and divided into the following three new funds: the Clean Water Fund (33 percent), the Parks and Trails Fund (14.25 percent), and the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (19.75 percent). Proposals for these categories bypass the Lessard Council and are directly heard by the House Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Division.

Although the tax won’t begin being collected until July 1, the division plans to introduce legislation this year so that initial projects are funded for 2010. Money will be appropriated each year through June 2034.

Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul), a council member, co-sponsored the constitutional amendment that authorized the tax increase.

“I think we’ll have more presentations than there is money,” Hansen said.

Revenue projections keep dropping due to the harsh economic conditions, but the first round of appropriations will be key, Hansen said. “It’s important that this first year voters can look and say, ‘Yes, that’s what I voted for.’”

Council composition

The council consists of 12 members with staggering terms. Four members were appointed by the governor; two citizens were appointed by the Speaker of the House; two citizens were appointed by a Senate subcommittee; and one DFL and one Republican legislator were chosen to serve from both the House and Senate: Hansen, Rep. Bob Gunther (R-Fairmont), Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul) and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria). The council’s administration duties fall under the auspices of the Department of Natural Resources.

Although formal presentations are scheduled to begin Feb. 9, there was preliminary testimony in late January when authors of a Statewide Conservation and Preservation Plan spoke before the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division.

Commissioned by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, the plan took 18 months to complete. Researched by dozens of institutions, including the University of Minnesota, it offers several recommendations based on an integrated assessment of the state’s natural resources.

“I think it’s challenging to look at all of these plans. We have to look at the testimony and at the credibility and capacity to do the projects. We have to look at whether it will result in an outcome,” Hansen said. “I believe we need to look at some balance regionally within each of these funds and across the funds.”

Gunther said some of the proposed projects, if funded, would utilize two-thirds of the estimated expenditures over the course of the funding. “I’m reluctant to say that I’d put all of my eggs in one basket,” he said. He expects lively debate will ensue over which projects should get the council’s nod.

(Sidebar) Council name honors champion of the outdoors

A bipartisan council that will recommend millions in environmental improvement expenditures for the next 25 years bears the name of one of the state’s most noted environmental advocates — former Sen. Bob Lessard (DFL-Int’l Falls).

Lessard, who represented District 3 from 1977 through 2002, is an avid outdoorsman who lobbied unsuccessfully during his tenure in the Legislature to let the voters decide whether to dedicate part of the sales and use tax to preserving and protecting the environment. Last November, he finally got his wish.

“He is the consummate outdoor sportsman. He has led the state in a lot of ways to enhance and create a better environment for hunting and fishing,” said Rep. Bob Gunther (R-Fairmont).

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