Environmental funding bill keeps DNR running
By Joe Albert
St. Paul -- When a legislative working group passed a bill last Thursday to fund the DNR and other environmental agencies, the room erupted in applause.
At the time, Senate and House passage was assumed, as was the governor's signature. That all happened, and state parks remained open and the DNR avoided being shut down. But Anne Hunt of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership couldn't bring herself to cheer.
"It's not something we can clap for," she said. "The Legislature and governor aren't committed to fully and adequately protecting our environment."
The bill drops conservation funding to a 30-year low, and brings environmental spending to about 1 percent of the state General Fund, Hunt said.
Additionally, other priorities that sportsmen rallied for in April -- dedicated funding, Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources reform, and the Clean Water Legacy Act -- didn't come to fruition, though a study on LCMR reform was ordered.
"I'm really disappointed -- they don't seem to get it," said Dave Zentner of Duluth, who organized the rally at the Capitol. "They don't understand the urgency of doing things now, not next year. All of these topics have been around long enough.
"The bottom line is it's all been talk so far, and there's plenty of blame to go around."
The bill contained funding for the DNR for the next biennium.
The agency took a General Fund hit, but the its total budget, at $614 million, is up from last biennium, said Mark Holsten, DNR deputy commissioner.
"It actually looks really good," he said. "A couple of weeks out from the end of the regular session, we were looking at a budget that had some severe, significant reductions" like closing some facilities.
Divisions like Forestry, which are largely dependent on General Fund dollars, will be more affected than those like Fish and Wildlife, which has a source of funding in the Game and Fish Fund.
Holsten said a slight reduction in staff numbers at the agency is possible, though current levels also might be maintained.
"We had a very successful year in both policy and finance at the Legislature," Holsten said.
Boat fees increase
The license fees on all boats are increasing.
The increases, earmarked for improving and acquiring public boat accesses, are expected to generate about $1.9 million per year.
The fee for a watercraft 19 feet long or less is increased from $18 to $27; for canoes, kayaks, and sailboats 19 feet or less, the fee is increased from $7 to $10.50; for personal watercraft, the fee is increased from $25 to $37.50. For all other watercraft 17 feet or less, the fees goes from $12 to $18.
For watercraft more than 19 feet, but less 26 feet, the license fee goes from $30 to $45; for watercraft 26 feet long, but less than 40 feet, the fee is increased from $45 to $67.50. The fee for watercraft 40 feet or longer is increased from $60 to $90.
Proponents of LCMR change, led by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who outlined an idea last fall to replace the commission's 20 legislators with a citizens board, got an assurance that there will be some sort of change.
The bill creates a 16-member group made up of four former LCMR members from the House, four former members from the Senate, and eight citizens who haven't served on the LCMR Citizens Advisory Council, but who have applied for LCMR grants.
The group will examine the current LCMR grant process and recommend changes, and submit a report by Feb. 15, 2006. The bill also sunsets the authority of the LCMR to spend Environmental Trust Fund dollars on June 30, '06.
Additionally, Pawlenty vetoed the second year of administrative costs for the LCMR, about $450,000.
Beaver damage grant
The Board of Water and Soil Resources must establish a beaver damage control grant program to provide grants to control beaver activities that damage public waters, roads, and ditches adjacent to private property.
Before he signed the spending bill, Pawlenty line-item vetoed about $6.8 million of it. The majority of the money -- about $4 million -- was appropriations from the LCMR to a variety of education and research projects.
Pawlenty said in a letter he vetoed the projects because they didn't meet the constitutional requirements of the lottery-funded Environmental Trust Fund.
Among the vetoes:
- $325,000 to a program that provides fishing opportunities to seniors, known as "Let's Go Fishing."
The bill was introduced by Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, and Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar. Juhnke called veto of the bill a "gut punch."
- $2.4 million over two years to the Minnesota Conservation Corps.
- $250,000 over two years to study the impacts of climate change on Minnesota's aquatic resources.