With more than $3 million in funding requests before the Legislature, Ducks Unlimited is keeping close ties to lawmakers it needs most.

Two weeks ago, Ducks Unlimited held its annual banquet blocks from the State Capitol, and key lawmakers helped out.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, Republican chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, sold $60 tickets out of his Capitol office. His committee helps control whether Ducks Unlimited will get the money it wants.

Rep. David Dill, lead DFLer on a panel distributing Legacy Amendment money Ducks Unlimited is seeking, is one of four legislators co-chairing the Ducks Unlimited State Capitol chapter. He said he personally has donated more than $10,000 to the conservation organization and lent his name to the banquet invitation.

Two dozen legislators, including House Speaker Kurt Zellers, attended the evening banquet -- interrupting a House floor debate on a bill that would cut $1.7 billion in health and social services programs in the next two years.

As this year's Legacy legislation takes steps to address conflict-of-interest issues, the banquet is the latest illustration of the intricate ties that have long bound Minnesota's leading outdoors groups and some of the state's most influential legislators on environmental issues.

A week after the banquet, a House panel began finalizing legislation to disburse hundreds of millions in Legacy Amendment money to projects for the outdoors, clean water, parks and trails and the arts. It included a $1.9 million shallow-lake shoreland protection project involving Ducks Unlimited.

Ducks Unlimited, an international group with 200 Minnesota chapters, is also seeking more than $1 million for shallow-lake conservation and a wetlands program from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). That proposal also must be approved by legislators.

Ducks Unlimited has done well in the past. The group has received funding every year since voters approved a 2008 constitutional amendment that dedicates money to outdoors projects, said Ryan Heiniger, the group's director of conservation programs in a five-state area that includes Minnesota. In 2009, the first year Legacy amendment money for outdoors projects was available, an advisory group of citizens and legislators recommended Ducks Unlimited get nearly $3 million.

"We have been very thankful for the funding that we've received," Heiniger said.

Ingebrigsten said lawmakers have long sold tickets to the Ducks Unlimited banquet from their Capitol offices.

"To sell tickets out of here -- that's been going on for years. No different, I guess, than [when] Sen. [Satveer] Chaudhary had done it," he said. Chaudhary is former DFL chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources panel. He lost his reelection bid last year after controversy over his efforts to change fishing limits on a lake where he owned property.

Although Ingebrigtsen acknowledged critics might see the relationship as too close, the retired county sheriff said there was no conflict of interest in his sale of tickets. No legislators promoting the event gained anything financially, he said.

As for Ducks Unlimited, he said, "They never pressured me one way or the other that I should spend more money on pheasants or ducks this year."

Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, the lead DFLer on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said she sees a problem. "I think there is a pretty cozy relationship with some of our members and some of the conservation groups, like [Ducks Unlimited]," said Higgins. She said she received e-mails from Ingebrigtsen's office urging her to attend the banquet.

The Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which recommends how to spend Legacy money for outdoors projects, has been the subject of scrutiny before. While its policy states members must disclose potential conflicts, it notes that simply belonging to a group that gets funding is not a conflict.

Scott Rall, a council member, has voted to fund $30 million in Pheasants Forever projects even though he is a Pheasants Forever chapter president. Last year he was named Pheasants Forever's Minnesota volunteer of the year.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, Republican chair of the House Legacy Funding Division, is proposing language to require any board members "ultimately responsible for awarding" Legacy grants and their advisory groups to disclose potential conflicts. The language would apply not only to Legacy money for outdoors projects, already covered by a conflict of interest policy, but also to Legacy projects for clean water, parks and trails and the arts. "It all has to do with openness, accountability and transparency," said Urdahl. "This whole area needs to be ironed out."

Dill, the lead DFLer on Urdahl's committee, defended his ties to Ducks Unlimited. He said he had been a Ducks Unlimited chapter president in northern Minnesota for 25 years -- dating to before he was a legislator -- and said the group embodies what voters wanted to fund when they passed the Legacy constitutional amendment.

"I don't see the problem," he said. As for his involvement with the Ducks Unlimited banquet, Dill said, "If somebody comes to that dinner because my name was on it, God bless them."

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673