The old tale about a frog being dropped into a pan of boiling water accurately illustrates the dilemma facing Minnesotans.
The story goes like this: Once immersed in the blistering liquid, the frog quickly realizes the danger to its life and leaps from the pan to safety. Lesson learned: Most creatures, humans included, when presented with imminent threats, will do what’s necessary to save their lives.
But put the same frog in a pot of tepid water and slowly increase its temperature until a boil is achieved, and the frog will die before it senses danger, so gradual is the threat’s onset.
Similarly, little by little, the heat is being turned up on Minnesotans.
Aquifers that supply some of the state’s drinking water are drying up. Many of Minnesota’s algae-infused lakes are unsafe for swimming. Hundred year floods occur every five years. Industrial farming is using up pollinator and wildlife habitat section by section. And the Twin Cities add rooftops and blacktop every day, raceways each for rainfall and snowmelt that run ever faster, and dirtier, into the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix rivers.
And yet, blithely, the Legislature convenes each year to consider proposals that turn up the heat a little more.
Example: One bill introduced in both houses this session would exempt agricultural drain tile from sales tax, whether purchased by individual farmers or installers contracted to lay the tile.
Drain tile contributes to siltation of the state’s rivers and streams, destroying fish and other aquatic habitat. Drain tile contributes to water-level “bounces’’ that inundate the state’s remaining wetlands, muddying the water after heavy rainfalls and, worse, destroying aquatic vegetation. Drain tile contributes to flooding. And drain tile removes much of the springtime “sheet water’’ that historically has gathered in farm fields, providing critical food and resting areas for migratory birds.
On the other hand …
Drain tile — the many thousands of miles of it laid in recent years across the state — allows farmers to get into their fields earlier in spring, while also increasing crop yields.
Good for farmers. But bad for most of the rest of us.
So, why should drain tile be exempted from sales tax?
Here’s another doozy: PILT — payment in lieu of taxes on wildlife lands purchased with Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF) money.
Created in 2008 with passage of the Legacy Act, the OHF receives about $100 million annually to protect, enhance and restore habitat for fish, game and wildlife. Projects paid for with OHF money are recommended to the Legislature by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
Farmer groups didn’t support the Legacy Act, and legislators who front for these outfits, along with a curious, albeit small, mishmash of DFLers and Republicans, have tried since its passage to stymie the purchase of wildlife lands with OHF money. This session, they’re at it again, saying PILT paid to counties on wildlife lands purchased with OHF money must be paid from the OHF, rather than the general fund, which traditionally has been the case.
Most observers see this as little more than another attempt by Legacy Act complainers to stop, or slow, OHF land purchases. Farmers in many cases oppose these transactions because, they say, they increase competition for, and therefore boost the cost of, land.
Which for the most part is hooey. Approximately the same acreage of wildlife lands has been purchased since 2008 as was bought in a similar period before that time. This is because the Legislature in many instances has defied the state constitution by using OHF funds to supplant (rather than supplement) bonding and other money allocated pre-2008 for wildlife management area and similar purchases.
It should be noted as well that most OHF lands possess marginal agricultural value. Traditionally, they’ve nurtured wildlife or other natural values, not corn and soybeans.
On the plus side this session, as has been widely reported, Dayton backs a bill that would require most state rivers, streams, drainage ditches and other waterways to be buffered with 50 feet of perennial cover.
Given legislators’ inaction so far on the bill, and the predictable howls of dissent from farm groups (though not from all farmers), the proposal would seem to have a bleak future. But Dayton has a few cards to play before session’s end. Don’t count him out.
Now, back to the story about the frog …
Whether measured by attempts to incentivize drain tile installation, oppose public land purchases or kill Dayton’s buffer bill, little by little, the heat is being turned up on Minnesotans.
To prevent the boiling point from being reached, public engagement in these matters must be much more widespread, and Minnesotans — farmers and conservationists, business owners and labor, rural resident and urban — must consider together what they want their state to look like in 25 years, and 50 years, and work toward those visions collectively.
More on how this could be done in future columns.
Meanwhile, e-mail your thoughts to the address below.