Legacy bill mired in controversy

St. Paul — The Legacy bill is on its way to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk, but if some sportsmen and conservation groups have their way, he’ll grab a red pen and make a few lines before he signs it.

The House on Monday passed the Legacy conference committee report 77-57; the Senate later followed suit, passing it 43-21.

Shortly after the Senate action, a letter – signed by more than 20 groups and individuals – went off to Dayton, urging him to line-item veto two of the projects. The letter reminded Dayton of his 2009 campaign pledge to veto any bill “that usurped the authority of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council by funding projects that did not go through the Council or cheated the process.”

“It is time to live up to your campaign promise to preserve the authority of the LSOHC and veto these specific projects,” read the letter, signed by groups ranging from Anglers for Habitat to the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, The Nature Conservancy to the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance.

The objectionable parts of the bill, according to the letter, were the $6.3 million for the Met Council for use in metropolitan regional parks, and $3 million for aquatic invasive species grants to tribal and local governments.

The LSOHC had heard the metro regional parks proposal, but it didn’t rank high enough and the council didn’t include the project among those in its list of recommendations to the Legislature. The council never heard a proposal for the AIS grants.

“Minnesotans are proud of our historically strong support for the arts and our environment,” Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis and the House bill’s chief author, said. “This is a strong Legacy bill that helps maintain that proud tradition into the future. We provide the resources needed to enrich our communities and keep our land, water, and air clean and healthy throughout Minnesota.”

Others weren’t so sure.

Throughout the session, the Legacy bill was, for sportsmen, the one to watch. Kahn made no effort at hiding her desire to change the recommendations of the LSOHC, or the process by which the council recommends projects.

The Legacy bill the House passed included a number of projects for which the council didn’t recommend funding – or didn’t hear at all – and also shifted the Outdoor Heritage Fund appropriation process from an annual to biennial one.

Even groups that receive money from the Outdoor Heritage Fund made clear they didn’t support Kahn’s bill. Take the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, which will get $2 million for moose habitat, for example.

“We would rather give that up and have no bill than to allow the Legislature to thumb its nose at the process and the council and the whole history of this fund,” said Mark Johnson, the group’s executive director. “It really smacks of, unfortunately, political cronyism looking for the pork trough.”

In the end, MDHA signed onto the letter asking Dayton to veto the two projects.

Kahn’s bill was watered down somewhat during negotiations with the Senate, which initially passed a bill that stayed mostly in line with the Lessard-Sams council’s recommendations.

Even so, when the conference committee completed its work and posted its report, sportsmen expressed disappointment with its contents.

“I’m surprised (the AIS and metro parks money) are still in there,” said Lance Ness, president of the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance. “Especially after the Senate said it wasn’t going to do that.”

In total, the Legacy bill includes just more than $100 million in spending from the Outdoor Heritage Fund. That’s about $5 million more than the council recommended. The council had wanted to leave about $5 million in reserve, but the bill – as presented to Dayton – would leave no money in reserve.

The bill largely maintains the council’s recommendations. It initially recommended about $13 million for the Reinvest in Minnesota Reserve program, then increased that amount to about $17.8 million when new revenue figures became available during the session.

But the final bill reduces the RIM amount to the original $13.4 million and directs that money, as well as the reserve funds, to metro parks and AIS.

The final bill doesn’t shift the appropriations process to a biennial one, but directs the LSOHC, in consultation with the Legislature, to study going to a biennial process beginning in fiscal year 2016.

Former Vikings Coach Bud Grant wrote Dayton directly, also asking him to line-item veto parts of the bill.

“The leadership deal that was struck on the Legacy Omnibus bill to fund certain projects not recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council will hurt the interests of the sportsmen and women,”

Grant wrote. “ … If you strike a deal to include projects that went around and ignored the path through the Council, you are not being a friend to the sportsmen and women. I would hate to see you jeopardize the valid concerns of those who supported you in your election campaign.”

Projects

The Outdoor Heritage Fund portion of the bill includes a number of projects, including:

  • $8 million to accelerate acquisition of wildlife management areas;
  • $6.8 million to accelerate acquisition of waterfowl production areas;
  • $3.9 million for the Outdoor Heritage Conservation Partners Grant Program.
  • $3.5 million for buffers for wildlife and water;
  • $2 million for enhancement of Pelican Lake in Wright County;
  • $1.2 million for sharp-tailed grouse habitat in the northeast.

In addition to the Outdoor Heritage Fund, the bill includes about $195 million from the Clean Water Fund; $85.1 million from the Parks and Trails Fund; and $116 million from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. All three of those are two-year appropriations.

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