Funding at top of DNR’s legislative agenda

St. Paul It’s a new year for the Minnesota Legislature, but the
requests from the state DNR will be much the same this session.

Three of last year’s top priorities are in the “finishing up”
form, according to DNR Deputy Commissioner Steve Morse.

“Clearly, our number one priority is funding,” he said.

Last session, the Legislature approved a license fee increase,
along with a General Fund match that provided the agency with an
additional $6 million for fish and wildlife management, and
enforcement. In addition, a portion of the sales tax from sale of
lottery tickets was allocated to the DNR.

Of the $18 million gained through the lottery sales tax, over
half went to the fish and wildlife divisions, and the remainder
helped fund parks, trails, and enforcement, Morse said.

However, he added, that funding was only approved for one year.
This year, the department would like to see the source become a
long-term asset.

“We hope (Gov. Ventura) proposes this money go into our base
(fund) so that we don’t have to do this year after year,” Morse
said. “This is a huge issue.”

The $16-18 million the DNR wants to become part of its funding
base would be directed to a number of programs.

The DNR’s wolf management plan needs funding, as does the
Enforcement Division, which is attempting to fill the state’s
stations and increase enforcement activity.

Nine new conservation officer recruits graduated last year,
Morse said, and another 20 are scheduled to begin at the training
academy next month.

Another funding source, which was examined but failed to gain
approval last session, may again surface.

The “Missouri Plan,” which would have dedicated 3/16 of 1
percent of the state sales tax to DNR programs, could be
resurrected by Independence Party member Bob Lessard, of
International Falls, and last year’s primary supporter of the
plan.

Such a plan, once approved by the Legislature, would need public
vote before it could be instituted.

“It’s certainly still in the mix,” Morse said of a Missouri Plan
for Minnesota. “This year, it’s not part of our proposal, but it’s
something we’re very interested in talking about. It would be great
to have a dedicated funding source like that.”

The DNR’s operating budget was adjusted this year, Morse said,
to included funding for the Conservation Connections program, which
would “take a broader look at land management and habitat.”

While Morse said the DNR considers the Conservation Reserve
Enhancement Program “a very important priority,” he said the Board
of Water and Soil Resources would be approaching the Legislature to
further fund the program.

Currently, about $98 million is available from the federal
government for the federal/state program directed at restoration of
the Minnesota River in this state. To get that funding, the state
must match the federal amount with $50 million of its own.

Morse said while the DNR has hired “CREP techs” for the ongoing
portion of the program in the state, he expects BWSR to pay for the
positions should funding be made available.

There are a number of other items on the DNR’s policy agenda for
this session. They include:

Con-Con lands designation. Last year, the Legislature designated
about 260,000 acres of land in northern Minnesota, leaving just
over 100,000 acres yet to be designated.

The DNR has recommended the remaining lands be designated as
state wildlife management areas. Last session, the Legislature
increased the payment in lieu of tax amounts counties receive for
loss of property tax income. Those payments for the remaining acres
would increase from 37.5 cents per acre to over $3 per acre. This
affects several thousand other acres of state-owned land across the
state.

That increase will, beginning in July, deduct about $3 million
from the lottery sales tax lottery funding, or reduce the amount
DNR outdoor departments receive from 97 percent of the sales tax
funding, to 86 percent, Morse said.

Forestry bill. The DNR wants to reauthorize the Forest Resources
Act, including the Forest Resources Council, for six years.

“We’re convinced of its merit,” Morse said. The bill includes a
funding request and requires policy approval.

The bill includes a request to authorize a study with the state
departments of transportation, revenue, and administration on the
use of forest roads and the appropriate apportionment of gas tax
revenue. Also included is a request to reorganize and update
statutes related to balsam bough harvest.

Game and Fish Policy bill. The DNR wants to clarify legislative
authority regarding cooperative agreements with tribal officers for
natural resources law enforcement, the use of decoys by
conservation officers, and the ability of the commissioner to make
grants for aquatic plant restoration projects.

The department wants language adopted that’s required by the
federal government regarding audit compliance for federal fish and
wildlife funding.

Administrative Policy bill. This bill includes the elimination
of mandatory issuance of artistic stamps for certain hunting and
fishing licenses. Morse said those stamps include the turkey and
trout stamps and that license holders, while not required to have
the license with them, may purchase the stamp and request the DNR
mail it to them.

The new Electronic Licensing System now prints licenses showing
that required stamps also have been purchased, thus eliminating the
need for the stamp itself. However, many say the art and contests
remain significant.

Park Boundary bill. The DNR would like to increase the
boundaries of 10 state parks, including Fort Ridgley, Bear Head
Lake, Nerstrand-Big Woods, Lake Bronson, Forestville, Lake Shetek,
Garden Island, G. Crosby Manitou, Split Rock Lighthouse, and
Cascade.

Lands bill. The DNR would like the Legislature to authorize land
sales that will complete the Lake County Twin Points project, as
well as complete a lands exchange project on lands covered by state
wild rice leases.

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