DNR prepares to deal with budget deficit

St. Paul – It’s unclear exactly what’s in store as a result of a
nearly $1 billion state budget deficit, but few areas are likely to
be left untouched, including the DNR.

A budget forecast released last week shows a projected $935
million budget shortfall for the current two-year budget
period.

“You can count on there being a reduction, general fund-wise,”
DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in a news release, said as much. He plans to
release his budget-balancing plan as early as this week and said he
would use spending cuts and other methods, but ruled out tax
increases or reductions in funding for K-12 education.

Until his plan is released, and legislators have had a chance to
pass a budget bill, DNR officials won’t know exactly what’s in
store for the agency.

This much is clear: Divisions like Forestry, Water Resources,
Lands and Minerals, and Parks and Recreation rely heavily on
general fund appropriations. Other divisions – Fish and Wildlife,
Enforcement, Ecological Resources, and Trails and Waterways – rely
more on other funds and aren’t as reliant on the general fund.

Holsten said “cuts will not be proportional across the agency,”
but officials will “try to minimize the impacts to divisions that
are general fund-dependent.”

He didn’t rule out layoffs, but said the agency would prefer
other means.

“What we’ll try to do is manage this through attrition – take
advantage of retirements and then, as those positions are freed up,
re-evaluate the service we are doing, or the work that’s being done
in that position, and see if we can realign it,” Holsten said.

The state also has a hiring restriction in place, meaning that
only essential positions are filled. There are some environmental
review positions currently open, for example, and given all of the
industrial development in the northern part of the state, those
positions will be filled, he said.

While the shortfall needs to be handled in the short term, it
also has long-term implications.

“Long term, we can’t expect these revenues to bounce back
quickly, as an agency,” Holsten said. Even as revenues come back to
the state, pressures from education and healthcare will continue to
climb, so “we need to think a little more long term than the agency
traditionally does about how and what services we will continue to
do and what the new priorities will be.”

Invasive species, for example: “We can’t back away from that,”
Holsten said. “There is more pressure coming to our landscape. But
what has to give in order for us to spend more (energy) on exotics?
That’s what we have to evaluate.”

Discussions are going on in St. Paul and elsewhere, he said,
about managing across DNR divisional lines and seeing where the
various divisions can help one another meet agency goals. There’s
also talk about additional collaboration with external entities
such as cities, counties, private landowners, and non-profit
organizations.

“We do a lot of collaborative work now, but we are going to have
to do more,” Holsten said.

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