Dennis Anderson is an excellent writer, but his Feb. 15 column “Council’s advice needs to be heeded,” about the expenditure of constitutionally dedicated outdoor heritage funds, reflects a lack of understanding of both the amendment and the legislative process.
This subject concerns the spending of $600 million every two years from “Legacy” funds the voters approved by constitutional amendment in 2008. Anderson claims that it is the Legislature’s responsibility to defer to Legacy recommendations made by a 12-member council. This is just wrong.
Article XI, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution provides: “No money shall be paid out of the treasury of this state except in pursuance of an appropriation by law.” The Legacy Amendment itself specifically states: “The money dedicated under this section shall be appropriated by law.” The authority to spend public money rests with the Legislature alone, subject only to a veto by the governor. This does not change just because a council gives advice to the Legislature.
Anderson frames the Legacy issue as arising only from the interests of sportsmen and sportswomen. In fact, over a period of 10 years, the Legislature worked with a variety of groups to piece together a comprehensive funding package for programs that all Minnesotans love. Funding for clean water, culture and the arts, and parks was added, and the sales tax to pay for these important items was included. Legislation added requirements of the oversight councils and the stipulation that membership of the councils and the allocation of funds be balanced throughout the state.
Anderson also says the Legacy Amendment was enacted to “bypass the Legislature.” That is also wrong. The amendment was done to bypass Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who refused to increase taxes for anything. The truth is, the advocates for the amendment worked very closely with the Legislature to get around the governor. Any other version is a pure myth told around a campfire to scare people.
Anderson is correct that the public wanted a say in how the funds to “restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife” would be spent. The recommendation of the Outdoor Heritage Council starts that process. The legislative process completes it.
Anderson criticizes the request by 10 elected metropolitan governmental units to spend $6.4 million of the $100 million annual outdoor heritage funds to restore, protect and enhance habitat in the metro area. He suggests these funds would be for parks. He is wrong again.
The metro habitat proposal is not for traditional park activities, but would go to protect, restore and enhance habitat in the 54,000 acres governed by metro agencies that oversee land under park entity jurisdiction. These 10 agencies have the responsibility for managing about 3 percent of the metro-area land that is open space — large park reserve areas that are primarily habitat for wildlife, not places of active recreation by people.
These metro park agencies have been entrusted with protecting habitat as well as creating places for people to recreate. They simply are two distinct functions under the same agencies. The nomenclature “parks” may confuse some people, like Anderson.
The metro area has 54 percent of the state’s population and pays 64 percent of all sales taxes. With a 61 percent vote, it overwhelmingly supported the Legacy Amendment despite significant opposition from some rural interests.
Yet, the metro area by some estimates has received only 5 percent of the $400 million in outdoor heritage funds. This should be a cause for concern, especially as the legislation that established the council Anderson says I should heed also required that appointments to the council should have geographic, gender, age and ethnic balance. In my opinion, past council membership has fallen short on all those criteria, and the results seem to reflect that lack of balance.
We also must take a closer look at some of the excluded area, specifically the part of the Mississippi Flyway that passes through the metropolitan area. Nearly half the bird species in North America spend at least part of their lives in this area. Birds (including hunted waterfowl) use this route because it is a good source of food, water and cover. The Constitution specifically recognizes the fact that hunting at all times in all places may not be required.
I for one will not blindly accept any recommendation from any council. The recommendation from this council with respect to the metro habitat request is disturbing. The four highest evaluation scores given the request averaged 79 points (on a scale of zero to 100). The four lowest scores gave it an average of 35 points. As a former experimental scientist, I believe that sort of disparity (when people are looking at the same facts) requires a second look. That’s the job my legislative committee is supposed to do.
Lest anyone suggest this is a partisan issue, two-thirds of the $6.4 million in the metro habitat proposal was targeted at the edges of the metro area in districts represented by Republicans. The money would protect habitat from encroaching urbanization before it is too late.
We need to see if the recommendations of this council make sense. They do not look fair to me, and others. If our assessment is correct, the Legislature should respond accordingly.
Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota House.