In berating Gov. Mark Dayton for his Legacy funds veto, the Star Tribune Editorial Board misguided the reader in several respects. Investigation into the process of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council might have avoided misunderstanding. As a past member of the council, I can outline the process.
The June 9 editorial implied that the council is detached from the Legislature, and is maybe even adversarial. In reality, the council was created by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority of the Legislature. Of the 12 members of the council, four are legislators. The House and Senate each select two more, and the governor selects four who are confirmed by the Senate. Citizens appointed to the council must be knowledgeable and experienced in one or more areas of conservation.
The council is committed to being transparent through its open-meeting requirement and to being accountable through audits by the legislative auditor. Council members also abide by a strict conflict-of-interest policy.
As a former member, I took home 600-page spiral notebooks of project proposals. More spiral notebooks were filled with accomplishment plans. The council spends time in the field evaluating and following up on previously established projects. The homework level is high, but it enables knowledgeable, dedicated individuals to make recommendations to the Legislature that are based on sound science, in order to maximize conservation gains with every Legacy dollar spent.
The attempt by some lawmakers to “tweak” the council recommendations this year was a poorly disguised override. Council members noted that the metro parks proposal included a number of projects with no unifying vision — it appeared to be a set of wish lists with no urgency or overriding goal. The cost per acre on some of these projects was especially high, and there was a lack of specificity in the description of the work to be performed.
In regards to the aquatic invasive species project, no agency submitted a proposal to the council. It is worthwhile to note that the Legislature appropriated more than $18 million to address the issue of AIS through other government funds. The Star Tribune’s suggestion that the Legislature should be able to “tweak” the council’s recommendations is weak — where do you draw the line? If $9 million is a “tweak,” what about $20 million? The better answer is for the Legislature to respect the council’s process. Legislative input was not disregarded. All four legislators serving on the council voted in favor of the council’s recommendations, which were unanimous.
The editorial failed to note the fundamental problem with the House’s approach: The Legislature’s action set a precedent that any organization whose grant proposal was not funded through the council should simply lobby the Legislature.
This kind of end run around the established process is not good government, and it is hard to understand why the Editorial Board would favor it. The council received $229 million in funding requests for $91 million in available funds. It must prioritize proposals, and those promoting less-urgent projects should reconsider the merits of their proposals and reapply the next year.
The Legislature established the council process, and the citizens who voted for the Legacy Amendment are entitled to assume that the Legislature will adhere to the process. Any changes should be limited to extraordinary situations in which an urgent problem or new information has arisen — and even then, the best solution is for the Legislature to direct the council to consider the need to account for the new information.
It is unfortunate that the editorial tagged those who opposed the House action as “outdoor special-interest groups.” Were the folks who tried to do an end-run around the council not also special-interest groups? Do we not want knowledgeable people who are committed to protect, enhance and restore habitat weighing in on how outdoor heritage dollars are spent?
In this circumstance, it seems that “special-interest groups” was a thinly veiled denigration of conservation groups by the Editorial Board. The fact is that Dayton declined to accept a legislative maneuver to bypass an established process for prioritizing use of Legacy funds. It would have been easier for him to simply sign the bill. Instead, he stood by the citizens who feel that public input in the allocation of Legacy funds should be respected.
Darby Nelson, a three-term member of Minnesota House of Representatives, was a citizen member of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council from 2008 to 2011.