Roundtable 2007: funding top topic

By Joe
Albert

Staff Writer

St. Cloud, Minn. — Like it is for many sportsmen, the concept of
a constitutional dedication of funds for natural resources was one
of the hot topics at the DNR Roundtable sessions. Formal
presentations covered the topic, and meeting attendees discussed it
in the hallways and around dinner tables.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the Finance
Committee’s Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget
Division, said she’s been a reluctant supporter of the concept, but
is more enthusiastic about it over time. Still, she cautioned there
remains division in the Senate about the idea.

“In my view, I think we kind of need to take a deep breath and
kind of start fresh,” Anderson said. “Just (because) Democrats are
in control doesn’t mean there is consensus automatically.”

As of Tuesday morning, that appeared to be the case. Four
dedicated funding bills had been introduced in the House and
Senate, and each was somewhat different.

Those bills would:

  • Increase sales tax by one-fourth of 1 percent and spend the
    money on habitat, clean water, and parks and trails.
  • Increase sales tax by one-fourth of 1 percent and spend it on
    natural and cultural resources.
  • Increase sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent and spend the
    money on cultural and natural resources.
  • Dedicate one-eighth of 1 percent of the current state sales tax
    to spend on hunter and angler access and habitat. (A related bill
    calls for creation of a walk-in public access plan.)

Anderson, who’s been an advocate for renewable energy, also said
she had been approached about the possibility of including that in
a dedicated funding bill.

In comments made at the Roundtable, Dave Zentner, co-chair of
Rally for Conservation (The Coalition for Ducks, Wetlands and Clean
Water) said that across the nation, ballot issues aimed at
protecting the environment have been successful.

He said the conservation movement needs to re-harness its energy
as the new legislative session gets under way.

“We’re told the priorities are property taxes, universal health
care, education; not the environment and not natural resources –
not in the top three, anyway,” Zentner said. “We’re in the dilemma
of a subject that is broadly supported by the vast majority of
Americans and Minnesotans, but it isn’t the panic of the
moment.”

Should the Legislature pass a dedicated funding bill in this
session or next, it would be on the ballot in 2008. Zentner said it
would take between $1 million and $3 million to do a statewide
education campaign.

“It’s going to be our job (to raise that money) and I ask the
Legislature to give us a product that will ensure that that work
will be embraced, with a successful result at the polls,” he said.
“Not one that is so confusing that we are doomed out of the gate to
a failed mission.”

John Curry, of the Campaign for Conservation, provided some
perspective on why a dedicated source of funding is needed.

Since 1970, he said, the state’s population has grown by 1
million people and is projected to grow by another 1.2 million in
the next 25 years. According to the state demographer, the state
will stop growing in 2070.

“In the next 25 years, 1 million acres of farmland and natural
lands will be developed,” Curry said. “We’ve got about two to three
decades to really figure out what this state and our natural
resources are going to look like in the future.”

Conservation Legacy
Council

Gov. Tim Pawlenty created the council, which includes 11
citizens and four legislators, to examine how conservation programs
in the state are funded and governed, to recommend how to improve
governance and funding, and to develop a strategic plan to
implement the recommendations, according to Mike Kilgore, an
associate professor at the University of Minnesota who chairs the
council.

“The governor’s office is very interested in recommendations
that can be readily implemented,” he said. “Not just pie in the sky
ideas, but very tangible ideas and strategies that we can put in
place.”

The CLC had an organizational meeting in November, met with DNR
and the Board of Water and Soil Resources in December, and plans to
meet with the Pollution Control Agency and Department of
Agriculture in the near future.

The council will meet every other week, and present its
recommendations to the governor’s office by the end of April, and
then work on writing the plan to implement those
recommendations.

Kilgore said the council plans to maintain a big-picture view of
conservation to ensure the state remains a leader in that area.

“In my opinion, if we drill down too deeply and get too focused
tactically on a particular area, we are dead,” he said.

Holsten says hello

The meetings marked Mark Holsten’s first Roundtable as
commissioner of the DNR, and he took the opportunity to introduce
himself and speak to his expectations for the agency.

“Your expectations on us (are) very high,” he said. “My
expectation on me is very high and my expectation on the employees
is very high.”

He spoke of some of the issues the DNR will deal with in the
next four years, including ATVs: The agency is working to “change
the culture of unregulated activity in the forest to a regulated
activity in the forest.”

He also said the agency would celebrate its successes, without
losing sight of problems down the road.

“You’re hearing this from a 41-year-old Lutheran Swede,” he
said. “I process a lot differently than a lot of people. I
internalize and I don’t show a lot of it. But I tell you, I go to
work every day looking forward to it.”

Holsten also noted that, at 41 years old, he’s in the minority
in terms of age, as about half of the employees are older than
50.

The agency will be losing many longtime employees in coming
months and years – longtime Fisheries employee Jack Wingate, for
example, is retiring in three months.

“For all of you involved or concerned or here today about lake
management and treaty management, that’s a hell of a resource I’m
going to lose,” Holsten said.

The result of such retirements, he said, is that people with
less experience will rise into key leadership roles.

“We are going to make some mistakes,” Holsten said. “But we are
going to make them with the intent of a better Minnesota.”

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