A new Legislature: What’s in store for outdoors?

By Javier Serna
Assistant Editor

St. Paul — The lack of legislative victories for conservation in Minnesota in recent years almost certainly hasn’t been helped by a divided state government, most recently with a DFL governor and House, and a Republican-controlled Senate.

But the partisan deadlock of the past several sessions could be over now that the DFL last week won majorities in both the House and Senate, on top of Gov. Tim Walz holding onto his job. The Senate flipping could have real consequences for issues such as chronic wasting disease, dysfunction with the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, the DNR’s investments in the state fish hatchery system and boat ramps, among a host of other issues.

Even before the election, the Senate was set to lose two key Republican natural resources leaders and chairs, including Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who retired from the Legislature, and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, who essentially was pushed out of her seat by her own party.

Ruud bucked party wishes repeatedly during the past session on a handful of conservation issues, perhaps the most visible being her standing with the DFL on a deer farm moratorium. That led to questions about then-Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, whose brother owns a deer farming business.

Miller’s leadership position lasted only a session. On Thursday, Senate Republicans opted for Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, to succeed Miller as the party’s new Senate minority leader.

“What happened to Carrie is politics at its worst,” said Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls. “What happened to her was wrong, as far as I’m concerned. If I lose, it’s because my opponent ran a better race.”

Ecklund was referencing his own re-election effort. During last week’s midterm election, he had 15 votes fewer than his opponent Roger Skraba, though he noted that he was entitled to a recount.

“We have a fantastic election system,” Ecklund said. “I am not doubting that. It is just close enough that it needs to be checked.”

Ecklund was seen as one of the most conservation-minded legislators left in St. Paul, with a knack for working across the aisle – something that had been increasingly difficult in recent years.

“I am very concerned,” said Ecklund, talking via cell phone from his deer stand earlier this week. “There are less and less in both parties that seem to be outdoor-related, whether it is hunting, fishing, or however you want to spend time outdoors. That is concerning. My kids all hunt. My new grandson, hopefully he will, too. It is tradition. We are losing a lot of these traditions.”

It wasn’t lost on Ecklund that a number of things he’d been fighting for – which had fallen short in one of the only divided state governments in the country – now might actually get some traction given the new makeup of the state Legislature.

“I am excited for what they will be able to do, and a lot of other things we can make inroads on,” he said. “I’m excited for what they have coming forward. If I don’t win in a recount, I will be disappointed I’m not going to be part of it.”

Those prospects were on the mind of Brad Gausman, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation.

“I would guess that we will see more legislative efforts come to fruition because of one-party control,” Gausman said. “We look forward to engaging in discussion with all members of the Legislature to make sure we are properly stewarding our natural resources.”

Gausman brought up CWD, for which the MNCF helped bring together a coalition of conservation groups to push for legislative action last session. 

“We are going to continue our work on CWD, and I hope the new Legislature will be receptive to that work,” he said.

One Capitol insider suggested that the Senate might consolidate its two environment and natural resources committees, which had been chaired by Ruud and Ingebrigtsen, combining Legacy Finance and Policy to Finance and forming one committee instead of two. 

The House currently has a single environment and natural resources committee, chaired by Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, but it remains to be seen whether Hansen will continue as chair.

Hansen has considerable seniority at this point, which makes him a candidate for a higher-profile chairmanship, but his passion for conservation and the prospect of getting things done could keep him where he is for now. He couldn’t be reached for comment for this story earlier this week.

Besides Sens. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, being named as Senate Finance chair, and Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, being named Senate Tax chair, there is no timeline for when the rest of the chairs in the House and Senate will be named.

For more regarding the recent election and its implications on conservation in Minnesota, see Outdoor Insights on Page 3 of this edition of Outdoor News.

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