Minnesota state representative: Tough to find partisanship in unanimously approved bill
ST. PAUL—Recently, a Herald editorial scolded Minnesota House members over a bill that fairly allocates more than $500 million in Legacy Amendment funding over the next two years ("Don't let lawmakers gut Minnesota's Legacy Amendment," Page A4, April 28).
Despite the editorial's attempt to create controversy within this proposal, it may surprise Herald readers to learn that it was approved on a unanimous, bipartisan 131-0 vote.
The reasons why are very clear. More than $100 million restores and protects Minnesota's water. More than $30 million will go toward protecting drinking water, while another $22 million will provide buffer aid to counties.
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program investments will help us leverage $350 million in federal funds, and we are also helping implement Gov. Mark Dayton's biggest clean water initiative.
The bill also contains necessary reforms. It creates a 5 percent reserve within each fund, protecting the health and integrity of the funds if the forecast changes. It also directs the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to focus on enhancements of current land instead of the buying of new land, which is needed to ensure there's more accountability in how funds are spent.
Minnesota currently owns 8.5 million acres of land. The federal government owns another 3.4 million acres. That means roughly one-fourth of the land within our borders already sits in the hands of government.
In the United States, Minnesota ranks fourth in terms of state land ownership. And since 2009, Minnesota has bought an average of 10,000 acres a year with Legacy money.
Once the state owns it, the county of origin loses its ability to collect taxes on it. Who makes up the financial difference? That county's property owners through higher taxes.
Common sense would tell you if Legacy funds are used to buy land and remove it from county control, those same funds should be used maintain the full property tax obligations so local taxpayers are held harmless.
The argument can also be made that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources cannot care for the land the state already owns, which is why we're setting aside revenue in a management account. We don't want to make this problem even worse.
And despite all of this, the editorial failed to note a very important point about the Legacy bill: it still allows the state to acquire significant land. While we made some changes in the bill to the Lessard-Sams recommendations, the bill still has the opportunity to buy nearly 10,000 acres of land with roughly $30 million.
The editorial also suggests voters passed the Legacy Amendment to generate new money to protect the outdoors. This is partially true. Like it or not, what Minnesotans truly voted on when it supported increasing their taxes was outdoors heritage, clean water, parks and trails and arts and cultural heritage.
In 2008, all of the interested parties within these four categories joined forces in order to convince voters to support their preferred programs. Their plan worked. Because of this, our state is now constitutionally obligated to spend money on things like public broadcasting, individual artists, zoos and bike trails, along with maintaining public lands.
This isn't a legislative mission. This is occurring because a majority of Minnesota voters wanted it to be this way.
It's also worth noting that of the 33 percent of revenue distributed to the Outdoor Heritage Fund, those funds "may be spent only to restore, protect and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife."
Nowhere does it say "must purchase state land."
As a hunter, I understand the need for public land. I also understand that if you are a member of a hunting or fishing group, this issue is likely your top priority.
The editorial board members can disagree with the priorities brought forward by the House Legacy Committee if they wish, but it is false to suggest that the House is attempting to limit public land hunting opportunities—especially when one-fourth of the state already is owned by government, and money was approved in this year's bill to buy even more land.
State Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, is chairman of the Minnesota House Legacy Funding Finance Committee.