Pawlenty proposes overhaul of LCMR

Staff Writer

St. Paul Gov. Tim Pawlenty last week proposed eliminating the
Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources, the legislative body
charged with doling out money for natural resources, and replacing
it with a seven-member citizens board.

The plan, announced at a press conference last Wednesday, would
shift spending and policy decisions from the LCMR, made up of 20
state legislators, to a new Minnesota Conservation Heritage
Foundation.

The LCMR, which will allocate about $37 million this biennium
from the lottery-funded Environmental Trust Fund, would be phased
out. Pawlenty’s plan calls for the MCHF to distribute that money,
in addition to other money currently appropriated by the DNR.

Pawlenty said his plan, which would narrow sharply the spending
focus of the trust fund, would remove politics from a long and
bureaucratic process. The plan requires legislative approval, but
it’s unclear who would carry the bill in the House or Senate.

“We would be better served in Minnesota to have a
decision-making process more long term, more strategic than the
current system allows,” Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty’s plan drew nearly instant concern from some LCMR
members.

“I don’t like it and I’m not going to support it,” said Sen. Jim
Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, chairman of the LCMR.

Another LCMR member and former chairman, Rep. Dennis Ozment,
R-Rosemount, expressed interest in the proposal, but didn’t throw
outright support behind it.

“I didn’t see anything the governor is putting on the table to
make me say Absolutely not,’ ” Ozment said. “There are some
concerns and we have to think a little bit more broadly of its
impact than just the positive side.”

The LCMR has a full-time staff of four people. Any comment on
their future would be speculative, said LCMR Director John Velin.
The new citizens board would also need a staff, Pawlenty said.

The LCMR was created more than 40 years ago and parcels out
money for a wide range of conservation projects.

Pawlenty said some of those projects energy proposals, for
example strayed from the intent of trust fund money. His plan would
fund specific projects involving fish and game preservation,
non-game habitat, forests, streams and shorelines.

The funding the LCMR has proposed for the 2005-2006 biennium
will still be in place. After that, projects not on Pawlenty’s
focus list would have to be paid for out of other pots of
money.

The LCMR currently recommends funding for natural resources. The
Legislature and governor must then approve the recommendations.
Pawlenty’s plan would largely eliminate the Legislature (it could
re-confirm the seven board members, whom Pawlenty would appoint).
The governor couldn’t veto the board’s funding decisions,
either.

“(Pawlenty’s plan) is a rather significant departure from
Minnesota standards,” Velin said.

The majority of the money the LCMR appropriates is from the
Environmental Trust Fund. Until 2003, the commission also
recommended funding through the Minnesota Future Resources Fund
from cigarette tax sales, which was re-routed to the general
fund.

As of June 30, there was about $342 million in the ETF. About 11
percent of the fund’s balance is available to the LCMR each
biennium. The trust fund distribution is expected to more than
double in the next 10 years and could grow faster if the state
expands its gaming activities, Pawlenty said.

Additionally, the new citizens commission would oversee any
conservation sales tax dedication, like 3/16s, if it were
passed.

The citizens commission also would get policy-making and funding
resources the DNR currently handles, like lottery-in-lieu of sales
tax and granting dollars. Lottery-in-lieu money totals about $18.5
million per biennium.

Pawlenty would appoint the seven citizens to the board. They
would serve six-year, staggered terms, which, he said, would remove
politics from the mix.

The idea of a citizens board with as much authority isn’t novel,
but neither is it common. It would be comparable to boards like the
Public Utilities Commission and the Metropolitan Council.

Conservation group leaders joined Pawlenty last week.

“It’s an exciting proposal,” said John Schroers of the Minnesota
Outdoor Heritage Alliance.

The DNR is also supportive of the proposal. Asked at the press
conference whether the new board would create a competing body, DNR
Commissioner Gene Merriam said: “It’s important to understand the
focus is on the mission, not the institution.”

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