One-third of state parks could have hours reduced and services slashed under a sweeping environmental bill approved by the Minnesota House and Senate on Tuesday.
The Republican-controlled House would cut deepest, but both houses would limit spending for the environment and natural resources during the next two years to about $200 million, a trim of about $40 million from projected spending. The House and Senate proposed more cuts than DFL Gov. Mark Dayton recommended, but he makes up much of the gap with outdoor and environmental fee increases.
The reductions would hit nearly every corner of the Department of Natural Resources, the Pollution Control Agency, even the Minnesota Zoo.
DNR officials said the cuts could force a "mothballing" of up to 10 parks until state finances improve. Under the plan, the parks would remain open, but campgrounds and buildings would probably be closed and unstaffed.
The bill ensures "we continue to preserve and protect the overall health and welfare of our natural resources," said Senate Environment and Natural Resources chairman Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria. "By making difficult choices and focusing on priorities today, we ensure a vibrant Minnesota outdoors tomorrow."
Neither proposal seems destined to become law in current form. On Monday, Dayton rejected the Republican-controlled Legislature's piecemeal budget process and said he would veto any budget bills with unrelated policy measures, as these are. Dayton threw up the roadblock as Republicans try to fast-track bills that chip away at the state's $5 billion shortfall.
The Senate's 37 to 28 vote came soon after Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, lambasted many of the "boneheaded" policy provisions. "It's an insult to the citizens," she said.
Steve Morse, director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said the legislation includes "disproportional cuts and extraneous policy provisions that threaten Minnesota's protections to our lakes, rivers and streams."
Ingebrigtsen said they strove to be even-handed, cutting equal shares from all budget areas.
"The importance of our priorities and the constraints of finite resources have led some to prepare for slight changes in the services that are offered within our area of the budget," he said.
$100,000 for documentary
The Senate wants to redirect money to more pressing concerns, such as chronic wasting disease that threatens deer populations. The proposal diverts $1 million from a water resources account to a fund to combat aquatic invasive species. At the same time, the Senate approved an amendment to spend $100,000 for Minnesota Public Television to create a documentary about the threat posed by aquatic invasive species.
DNR officials said they are uncertain how many parks would be affected because the operating costs vary greatly from park to park.
"One may cost $30,000 [a year to operate], while another may cost $1.5 million,'' DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said. "Tower-Soudan Underground Mine, for example, is very expensive to operate, but it provides a very unique visitor experience. We could close Itasca State Park and Tower-Soudan, and that would take care of [the cuts],'' he said. "Or we could close 10 smaller parks.''
To offset reductions, the Senate moved $3 million in lottery dollars from the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) to the parks budget -- money that was supposed to go toward development of the new Vermilion State Park in northern Minnesota.
Landwehr said he questions the constitutionality of such a shift. The law specifies that those dollars are to be used to protect, conserve, preserve and enhance state resources.
"Can you use that money to mow grass or clean toilets? I don't think so,'' Landwehr said. The DNR says it legally may be able to use just $750,000 of that $3 million.
The House approved a similar measure 72 to 57 later in the day, but tacked on an amendment that would prevent the closure of any of the state's 74 parks. House members said state parks are a prized amenity to be protected, no matter how grim the state's financial times. Still, Democrats were upset that hours and services could be cut to the point where some parks may be rendered unusable.
"It's going to undermine access to Minnesota state parks for thousands of Minnesotans," said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. "While everyone understands the need to tighten the budget belt in these difficult times, we shouldn't let the belt become a noose."
Under pressure from all sides, the House did strip out a controversial proposal to allow commercial loggers to cut black walnut trees in two southeastern state parks.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who proposed the measure, said logging could recoup enough money from the trees to subsidize park operations. But critics argued it would destroy cherished state wilderness. The proposal could be resurrected in coming weeks, however.
The two versions will go now to a conference committee to work out a joint bill.
Staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288