Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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DNR faces grim budget outlook

Editor

St. Paul The $3 billion budget hole facing the state of
Minnesota could mean unprecedented cuts to the DNR during the next
budget cycle, say agency managers and administrators.

The DNR outlined its “draft options” of possible cuts to the
media and the public last week at a series of meetings around the
state. The worst case scenario would mean $47 million in program
cuts to the agency’s $260 million budget and the loss of up to 500
of the agency’s 2,700 full-time equivalent employees.

The agency prepared the draft options following a request from
the Minnesota Department of Finance instructing all state agencies
to outline 10-percent budget cuts. Including the possible loss of
Heritage account monies from the lottery-in-lieu, (which the
Legislature first allocated in 2000) and inflation, the total cuts
are actually closer to 18 percent, says Steve Morse, DNR deputy
commissioner.

Morse called the draft options “worst case,” and noted that the
agency also is preparing for a “whole harmless” scenario if the
Legislature and governor reconsider the 10-percent target reduction
and reallocate the lottery-in-lieu funds. Other “mitigation
strategies” would include indexing current user fees to inflation,
or possibly increasing public user fees that have not “kept pace
with inflation.” A third option, according to the agency, is a
long-term fix, ala the 3/16s constitutional dedication of state
sales tax.

Which scenario occurs will depend on economic trends, which
affect statewide revenues, and the results of the Nov. 5 statewide
elections for governor and the Legislature. Estimates suggest as
many as 20 percent of the next Legislature will be freshman
representatives and senators.

All proposed cuts, according to Morse, are proportional between
the field and St. Paul, and try to maintain “core” activities. The
worst case scenario includes cuts to the dedicated accounts and the
Game and Fish Fund, because Finance told the agencies to put
everything on the table. Though it would take legislative action to
tap those monies, it’s an option that the agency is being directed
to consider, he said.

“We don’t think that makes sense, and we oppose using any
dedicated accounts,” he said.

The four divisions that receive lottery-in-lieu Heritage account
dollars enforcement, ecological services, wildlife, and fisheries
face deep cuts, because the agency cannot include that money as
part of its base budget. Therefore, any worst case options must
assume the Legislature will not reappropriate that, Morse said.

In DNR Fisheries, possible cuts could mean 83 fewer positions in
the 400-person division, and a total cut of 6.8 million in the
division’s $29 million budget. Program cuts could mean a 72-percent
reduction in creel survey and habitat development projects.

Under Fisheries, there also would be an 8-percent drop in trout
stocking, a 12-percent drop in muskie stocking, and an 18-percent
drop in catfish stocking. Walleye stocking would not be affected.
The cuts would likely mean the closing of at least one hatchery,
Morse said.

In the Division of Wildlife, the cuts could mean eliminating 39
positions and reducing the Division’s $24 million budget by $6.2
million. Program impacts include slicing away another chunk of
annual wildlife management area acquisition. On average, about
5,000 acres are added annually and the proposed cut would reduce
that by 850 acres.

In addition, 30 basins, or 6,100 acres, would not be managed for
waterfowl as part of the Division’s shallow lakes initiative.
Burning efforts, WMA management, and wildlife survey efforts also
would be reduced.

Reductions in season management efforts would mean eliminating
some special deer and goose hunts, and the moose hunting season now
an annual event would be moved back to every other year.

Ecological Services and its $9 million budget could see $2.7
million in cuts and the loss of 22 employees.

In the Division of Enforcement, Morse said, 27 positions could
be affected, including some conservation officers, and the
Division’s $25 million budget could lose $4.7 million. The Division
already has cancelled a CO academy to put more officers afield,
Morse said, “and there’s no academy in sight.”

The Division currently has 130 officers in the field compared to
the 1940s goal of 150, Morse said. Personnel cuts likely would come
from attrition through retirements, though some layoffs could be
possible.

The division would maintain efforts in “resource protection and
public information and educational services.” That means COs would
remain in the field to answer complaints, apprehend violators, and
protect the resource. Simultaneously, however, the agency may
direct officers to become more focused on environmental protection
“in lieu of traditional game and fish poaching abatement
patrol.”

The draft options document says “Efforts will be made to
preserve the environmental infrastructure so that adequate
management and fish and game protection efforts are funded, the
environment has the capacity to replenish and restore
populations.”

Under the proposals, the average patrol area per officer would
increase to about 900 square miles, with some over 2,000 square
miles, from about 600 square miles currently. Among the other
affects, the public can expect a reduced response time from COs,
and safety education programs could also face cuts.

In other divisions, Forestry already dealing with substantial
losses from the last session could lose up to 60 positions and $5.6
million in revenues. The cuts include less timber offered for sale
on state lands and closing up to 50 percent of the state forest
road system.

In Parks and Recreation, the agency proposes reducing the number
of state parks that allow camping from 66 to 12. Morse said the
change would affect 82 percent of state parks but 66 percent of
users, because the agency would keep heavily used campgrounds open.
Among other proposals: education programs at parks would see
large-scale cuts.

The DNR includes many cuts for the Trails and Waterways Division
in its draft options, including reducing maintenance and grooming
on DNR and snowmobile trails. The loss of lottery-in-lieu would
also cut local trails connection programs and mean a 25-percent
reduction in state trail nonmotorized maintenance.

The Administrative and Operations Support budget, which includes
the Commissioner’s office, DNR fleet, licensing, and other bureaus,
would see a $5.76 million cut to its $28 million base budget.
Program cuts being proposed include: reductions to staff in the
southeast Asian program; eliminating the Becoming an Outdoors Woman
program, the Volunteer Program, and the Minnesota Conservation
Corps. Local media and other public relations efforts would be
reduced or eliminated. Customer service would be affected at DNR
licensing as well as in DNR web site design and services.

The Office of Professional Standards, which investigates
complains about employee behavior, would remain, but Morse said its
$300,000 budget and three-and-a-half-person staff would face the
same 10-percent formula as every other program.

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