The outdoors and environment commission that vets the use of more than $40 million a year in Minnesota lottery proceeds remains unsettled after a highly contentious wrap-up to its most recent funding cycle.
When the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) meets Tuesday in St. Paul, members will review discord in the legislative session that unraveled 18 percent of the commission’s recommended spending.
Normally the Legislature embraces all but a thin margin of projects sanctioned by the commission. But this year, House Republicans authored a combination of cuts and replacement projects that were met by a resounding batch of line-item vetoes from Gov. Mark Dayton.
In the end, the LCCMR’s $46.3 million natural resources bill was reduced to $37.9 million, and key participants are still feuding.
“I think it’s irresponsible behavior,’’ LCCMR co-chair Nancy Gibson said Friday in her assessment of major changes penned by Republican Rep. Tom Hackbarth of Cedar in a committee chaired by Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings. The two legislators also are voting members of LCCMR.
Gibson commended Dayton for nixing the replacement projects favored by Hackbarth and McNamara, saying some were unconstitutional and none were reviewed by the commission. “He [Dayton] closed the door on abuse, which I think is great,’’ said Gibson, who originally was appointed to LCCMR by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
McNamara, who announced Wednesday that he won’t run for re-election this fall, said “it’s absolutely embarrassing’’ how the LCCMR operated in 2015. None of the commission’s three vice-chairs was a Republican legislator, despite Republican control of the House, he said.
Also, McNamara alleged in October that leaders of the commission met privately just prior to the LCCMR making its final recommendations, violating the tenets of open government. The co-chairs maintained that the pre-meeting was routine to plan that day’s meeting.
McNamara said it’s a “joke’’ to say Dayton was defending the purity of LCCMR’s citizen-legislative makeup with his “surprise’’ vetoes. The governor vetoed every replacement project added to the bill, including provisions that would have sent millions of dollars to DNR, the state transportation department and the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth.
“These line-item vetoes do not reflect my lack of support for these projects; rather, they underscore my conviction that the Legislature must work with its Citizen Councils, not against them,’’ Dayton wrote.
In an interview Friday, the governor said McNamara’s unfounded accusations against the inner-workings of LCCMR are “feeble’’ attempts to justify the pre-emption of a system that was designed to produce careful, nonpolitical decisions.
A decade ago, the state’s environmental spending accounts were derided by Pawlenty as a slush fund. Changes were made to divert significant natural resources dollars to the general fund, and LCCMR was created to replace a previous commission made up entirely of legislators. Adding citizens was seen as a reform, and the commission now has 10 legislators and seven citizens.
Projects axed from LCCMR’s 2016 package included two research efforts related to climate change, financial support for the development of cheaper, more flexible solar panels and the creation of workshops for hunters to adopt nontoxic ammunition. Moreover, the cuts eliminated $5 million in land deals to expand state parks, trails and natural areas. Initially, House Republicans chose to omit or reduce 23 projects, but some of those were saved in conference committee.
Peter Snyder, associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Soil, Water and Climate, said his research project to localize climate projections seemed like a “done deal’’ when the LCCMR recommended it. The $411,000 proposal had support from several state agencies, including the DNR.
Snyder said he received an 11th-hour notification that Hackbarth was cutting his project. When it was dumped by McNamara’s committee in a party-line vote, Snyder said he viewed it as an “attack on climate-change research.’’
“I thought this state was better than that,’’ Snyder said.
Hackbarth said his only motivation for cutting some projects from the LCCMR bill and adding others was to improve the overall package. Both he and McNamara emphasized that LCCMR recommendations are subject to legislative scrutiny. The projects they added to the bill without LCCMR review were meant to address “emerging issues,’’ Hackbarth said.
“I didn’t just whack things out because I didn’t like them,’’ Hackbarth said.
According to state records, Hackbarth was absent for 12 of 13 LCCMR meetings last year, including the all-important selection of appropriations. The package passed on a vote that included no audible dissent, with McNamara in attendance.
Hackbarth said he attended last year’s first meeting of the commission, when co-chairs were selected. He was nominated as a co-chair, but House DFLer John Persell of Bemidji received more votes.
Hackbarth said he stopped going to the meetings because he thought it was wrong for the commission’s House co-chair seat to be filled by a DFLer.
“The minority shouldn’t hold gavel over the majority,’’ he said.
Gibson, the LCCMR co-chair, said Tuesday’s meeting will include discussion of commission procedures. But she said the system is “upfront and respectful’’ and designed to give project submitters a “fair shake.’’
She said that wasn’t so in the last funding cycle, when so many carefully reviewed projects were “jerked out’’ by the Legislature.