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11th-hour move to shift funds divides panel

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH
  • Star Tribune
  • January 23, 2009 - 10:15 PM

After working for months deciding how to spend lottery funds totaling $25 million, the 17-member Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) failed last week to agree on a package of environmental projects to recommend to the Legislature.

The stumbling block was an 11th-hour move to take money from projects that acquire land or easements for fish and wildlife habitat and use it for a jobs program and solar energy project.

Some critics say it is an attempt to divert dollars away from wildlife habitat projects because of the availability of revenue from the new Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. The amendment, passed by voters last fall, raises the state sales tax by 3/8 of 1 percent. Those dollars aren't supposed to supplant existing natural resource funding.

"There has been a growing chorus from LCCMR that it should no longer fund habitat acquisitions because of the new dollars [from the amendment],'' said state Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley.

"That's the central motive for what's going on. I'm very concerned,'' said Chaudhary, who sits on the commission and was a supporter of the constitutional amendment.

"I think he's wrong,'' said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, also a commission member.

The full commission, composed of 10 legislators and seven citizens, in December had preliminarily approved a package of 33 projects for 2009 costing about $26 million. Under the law, approval requires support of 12 members. But with the commission missing three members last Friday, the package garnered only 11 votes, meaning the commission essentially made no formal recommendation to the Legislature.

That's never happened before, officials said.

Wagenius and Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, voted against the measure.

The commission was missing three members last week because of term expirations or resignations, which likely contributed to the stalemate. But the bigger obstacle surfaced when Wagenius offered an amendment that would take about $2.2 million from a proposal to buy land or easements for wildlife habitat. Wagenius said the money instead should be used to fund the Minnesota Conservation Corps, a nonprofit group that hires youths and young adults to work on natural resource projects, and to pay for the addition of solar energy to some state park buildings.

Wagenius said she offered the changes in response to the state's growing unemployment rate and concerns by other legislators that jobs should be part of the bill. "Our unemployment rate is skyrocketing,'' she said. She said the LCCMR bill will have a better chance of passage at the Legislature if it addresses the jobs issue, too.

But other commission members were miffed that the amendment, which failed, was made at the 11th hour after they had spent months sifting through 156 proposals seeking $105 million. Some are concerned it's pork-barrel politics and fear that legislators will circumvent the commission's efforts.

"I felt it was an insult to our process,'' said Nancy Gibson of Minneapolis, a citizen member.

Said Jeff Broberg of St. Charles, another citizen member: "I'm not too happy about having the rug pulled out from us by our own committee.''

Al Berner of Good Thunder, another citizen member, said there was no evidence that Wagenius' proposal would create any more jobs than the projects approved by the majority of commission members.

The Legislature added citizens to the commission in 2006 in hopes of reducing pork-barrel politics, Broberg said. If the commission can't even reach agreement on a spending package, he's afraid the Legislature simply will decide funding issues, making the commission moot.

"It opens us up to other legislative mischief,'' Broberg said.

Though the commission didn't vote to forward its recommendations, a bill with the list of 33 projects will be introduced in the House and Senate. Wagenius, who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division, said the bill undoubtedly will face amendments. "I think the bill is vulnerable," she said.

Said Chaudhary, who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee: "If the bill morphs into something that is completely different from what LCCMR recommended after many months of work, I'm pretty sure I won't support it.''

Meanwhile, two new members of the commission were recently appointed, Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, and Rep. Ron Shimanski, R-Silver Lake. That leaves one opening still to be appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

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