Political intrigue will accompany expected floor debate in the Minnesota House on Saturday when that chamber’s version of the Legacy bill comes up for a vote. Sportsmen’s, conservation and environmental groups will watch the tally closely to see who aligns on which side — information that doubtless will be used for and against various candidates in the next election.
Recall that the House Legacy Committee, chaired by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, significantly altered recommendations brought to it by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, a 12-member group whose charge is to evaluate and recommend fish, game and wildlife projects to be underwritten by the Outdoor Heritage Fund.
That fund is one of three created by the Legacy Act, which voters approved as a constitutional amendment in 2008. Other funds appropriate Legacy money for clean water, and parks and trails.
Uniquely in Minnesota government, the Lessard-Sams Council comprises eight citizens and four legislators. Its establishment was critical to passage of the act because sportsmen and women in particular don’t trust the Legislature to fund conservation adequately, and especially don’t trust the Legislature not to divert conservation money to other purposes.
By all appraisals, the Lessard-Sams Council has done diligent, high-quality work, even as its membership has evolved. Improvements can always be made, and will be. But the involvement of a majority of conservation-minded, well-qualified citizens on the panel has ensured to the greatest degree possible that the best projects have been funded in accordance with a long-term statewide conservation plan the council has developed.
Enter Kahn, et al, who have changed the council’s recommendations significantly, in part by forking over $6 million to metro parks for projects the council rejected, and also by funding land acquisition on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation. Other money adjustments also were made, including, critically, a shift from the council’s one-year budget cycle to a biennial cycle — a deal breaker for conservation groups because it hamstrings the council’s ability to react quickly to new threats, such as invasive species.
A lot is at stake here, particularly the integrity of the council and its continued inclusion in the Legacy funding process. The council’s word is not and shouldn’t be absolute. But the citizen-involvement process was critical to passage of the Legacy Act, and its continued prominent role in the determination of how about $100 million in Outdoor Heritage Fund money is spent was part of the pact made with voters in 2008.
Which brings us to Saturday’s expected House floor action, where amendments to Kahn’s Legacy bill will be made, including one — perhaps offered by Kahn’s own DFL party — to delete the measure in its entirety and replace it with the original Lessard-Sams recommendations.
Success of that amendment’s passage isn’t guaranteed, but the nose count could be close, in part because DFL House members who gained their seats by slight majorities in the last election will be targeted by conservation-minded constituents.
Curious also will be whether Kahn offers an amendment she wrote but ultimately decided not to present to her committee for a vote. That amendment would have increased the Lessard-Sams Council to 17 members from its present 12, and flip-flopped the membership advantage in favor of legislators, 10 to seven — the identical makeup of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which spends about $40 million annually in lottery money.
Most everyone familiar with Kahn and her legislative sidekicks suspects her end game is to make mirror images of the two panels. The argument then would follow that both councils aren’t needed and that they should be merged, to be controlled (along with their funds) by legislators.
Though that won’t happen this session, it’s possible as early as Saturday, Kahn will get her bill approved by the House, an action that likely would cost her nothing politically, given the apparent torpidity of her by-now addlepated constituents.
While other House DFLers might not be so lucky, and could lose their seats, more intriguing if Kahn’s bill is approved will be what happens in the Senate, which so far has taken a wait-and-see attitude about Kahn and her Legacy bill.
DFL Majority Leader Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook has said he respects the Lessard-Sams process and plans no changes to the council’s recommendations. And despite the huge amount of Legacy money involved — some $300 million a year between fish, game and wildlife, parks and trails, and clean water — it’s believed Ba kk is willing to have no Legacy bill this year rather than accept Kahn’s changes forced on him in a conference committee.
The upshot: Kahn has played her cards. Others are about to play theirs. Effective conservation, only a recent notion in Minnesota, hangs in the balance.