House passes changes to Minnesota's school trust lands

St. Paul — The House on Monday passed a bill that would take away the DNR’s responsibilities for managing 2.5 million acres of school trust lands, most of them in northeastern Minnesota. The bipartisan measure passed 104-26.

The DNR – and some legislators – have criticized the measure, saying it will add another level of bureaucracy to oversight of the trust lands, which earn for K-12 public education about $30 million – interest earned from a $750 million trust account.

Bill sponsor Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell, said he believes the measure, if implemented, would “give some efficiencies” to a system that’s not meeting its earning potential.

Dave Schad, DNR deputy commissioner, on Tuesday countered O’Driscoll’s claim of greater efficiency within the House bill parameters.

Schad said the measure would make government bigger and the system less efficient, ultimately costing the fund millions.

The bill, House File 2244, would create a five-member citizen board (appointed by the governor) to oversee school trust fund lands. The board also would hire a director whose function would be to manage and administer the lands.

In addition, the bill creates a 12-member legislative commission composed of six House and six Senate members, split equally by party affiliation. The commission would review all legislation that might affect school trust lands.

Before the House voted on the measure, St. Paul DFLer Alice Hausman suggested the bill might be further complicating the matter.

“We are unleashing a new bureaucracy, a new level of government,” she said. “I contend we have not a clue what the consequences might be.”

She did, however, agree with another key supporter of the bill, Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin. Both agree hunters and anglers who have used the lands should have been paying for the privilege of using the lands – another revenue source for the trust fund.

Hausman, however, said focusing simply on maximizing revenue – possibly at a cost to the environment – could have “unintended consequences,” including destruction of natural resources.

If that’s the legacy years from now, it’s “a burden (today’s youth) will never thank us for,” she said.

During bill debate, other House members questioned aspects of the bill’s constitutionality, something O’Driscoll said could be addressed in conference committee.

However, a recently amended Senate version of the bill is quite different than the approved House version, according to Schad.

The bill would create an advisory position, someone who’d advise the governor, DNR, Management and Budget, and an already-established trust fund advisory committee regarding all aspects of management of school trust lands.

If the concerns are regarding things such as efficiency and transparency, “We think that (Senate bill) makes more sense,” Schad said.

The Permanent School Trust Fund was the result of the federal government more than a century ago granting sections 16 and 36 of each township to be held in trust, to create revenue for the public school system. Originally more than 8 million acres, the land holdings have dried up over the years, mostly in areas where it was lost to agriculture.

There’s also a portion of land within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – about 85,000 acres – that due to its location (and the restrictions therein) isn’t generating dollars for the fund. DNR officials say they’re closing in on a deal with the federal government to retain some land holdings via a trade for acreage outside the BWCAW, coupled with the sale of about half the acres within – with the proceeds going to the trust fund.

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