Session finds funds for Vermilion park

St. Paul – Minnesota is a step closer to its first state park
since the 1970s. As part of session-ending negotiations and
deal-making, the Legislature approved $20 million for a new state
park on the shores of Lake Vermilion in northeast Minnesota.

That was Sunday. Just hours before, on Saturday, a conference
committee approved a citizens-legislators council to advise on
spending of a portion of the money that will be raised if voters
this fall approve dedicated funding.

The approval of both items brought to a close what many
conservationists considered, for the most part, a successful
session.

“All in all, it worked out pretty good,” said Gary Botzek, of
the Minnesota Conservation Federation. “Between the council on
Saturday and the park on Sunday, it makes for a pretty good
weekend.”

Funding for the park came by way of a second bonding bill that
totalled $105.5 million. While negotiations with the current owner
of the Vermillion land – U.S. Steel – are ongoing, the bill puts
the state in the position of a would-be homebuyer who has been
approved for a mortgage, said Bob Meier, DNR assistant
commissioner.

The state and U.S. Steel still have to agree on a price for the
land – about 3,000 acres. The deadline is July, according to the
DNR. Otherwise, the company plans to develop the land. Now that the
state has money for it, Meier expects the pace of the negotiations
to pick up.

“It’s a huge success,” Meier said. “It gives us some negotiating
power to go in and work with U.S. Steel.”

One of the sticking points of the park was the revenue that
governments in the area believed they would lose by having a park
instead of homes. But under the deal, local governments will split
payments in lieu of taxes that equal 1.5 percent of the appraised
value of the land. That’s more than the state typically pays.

As debate about the park progressed at the Capitol, there were
plans to make the state transfer thousands of acres of state lands
– an amount equal to what would be left undeveloped in Lake
Vermilion State Park – on other lakes and forests to St. Louis
County. The DNR and others objected to that plan, and it was left
out of the final bill.

And while the state park remains a controversial undertaking,
supporters lauded lawmakers for appropriating money for it.

“The Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota applauds Gov. Tim
Pawlenty and the Legislature for combining their creative energies
to ensure that generations of Minnesotans will have an opportunity
to experience one of Minnesota’s most spectacular parks at Lake
Vermilion,” a Parks and Trails Council release says. “While each of
our state’s 72 state parks represent their own legacy, there is no
doubt that future generations will look back with gratitude on the
day that our elected officials had the vision and determination to
create what may become the crown jewel of our state park
system.”

Budget deficit

One of lawmakers’ primary focuses was on patching a nearly $1
billion state deficit. They did that by dipping into a budget
reserve, accounting shifts, and cuts to state agencies.

Overall, the DNR saw a 4-percent budget reduction. Divisions
such as Fish and Wildlife and Enforcement took a larger General
Fund hit.

“We’ll deal with the cuts through restructuring, administrative
savings, travel reductions – thinks like that,” Meier said.

The bigger challenge, he said, will be next year, when the
biennial budget deficit is expected to be between $1 billion and $2
billion.

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