Nearly three hours of private conversations and negotiations ended swiftly about 6:30 Monday evening when the House-Senate conference committee debating the $210 million Legacy Amendment legislation voted unanimously to send the committee report to the House and Senate floors.
Passage there is assured in the Senate — and generally expected to occur also in the House. Still, the House might use up a little more time to debate the measure, and with only hours remaining in the session, that time causes some concern among observers.
The upshot of discussions among Sen. Dick Cohen, co-chair of the conference committee, and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller throughout Monday afternoon, along with representatives of the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council and various conservation groups, was the following:
1) Rep. Mary Murphy, co-chair of the conference committee, made a statement to the committee after she and Cohen finally gaveled the meeting to order. Clearly she was stressed — in part because she was carrying a pension bill that means a lot to her and her constituents, and it hadn't passed the Legislature yet at that late hour, either.
2) Murphy's statement was essentially a concession to concerns raised by the sporting groups, and brought to her earlier by Pogemiller, among others. Murphy told the committee that because of the concerns, the controversial $2 million appropriation of Lessard Outdoor Heritage funds to emerald ash borer control (a House idea) could go forth, but only under the guidelines set forth to administer other council funds, e.g., the funds must be administered on public lands, etc.
3) Murphy also said that the Conservation Partners Program — essentially a program of small grants that will go to sportsmen's clubs and so forth — will not be considered a "pilot'' program, as it was in the conference committee agreement (a House idea). This change was important because many hunters and anglers are believed to have voted for the constitutional amendment last fall because of the opportunities for local conservation the Partners Program provided.
4) Finally, in a significant concession to the Senate and to Garry Leaf of SportsmenForChange.org, among others, Murphy said that the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council could continue to use its definitions for "restore, protect and enhance'' habitat for the coming year — this even though the bill approved by the conference committee dictated different — and, many observers argued, consummately too vague — definitions.
5) This last issue is important to hunting and angling groups because definitions of restore, protect and enhance already have been put forth by the Lessard council — and those definitions include the words, repeatedly, "fish, game and wildlife.'' Absent those words, and project proposals for parks and other, similar areas — proposals that are in plentiful supply, based on the large number presented to the council earlier this year — would compound.
After the affirmative vote, as the conference committee room emptied, most observers went away happy. Or at least not disappointed. As one put it, "It's something we can live with, and a lot better than the House bill originally was.''