Anderson: Citizens needed for Legacy Amendment oversight

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2011 - 7:30 AM

A legislative audit of Legacy Amendment spending correctly endorses nonpoliticians in shaping fund goals.

Reports released Wednesday by the legislative auditor contained no surprises for those who have paid close attention to debates and discussion that preceded and followed the 2008 approval by state voters of the Legacy Amendment.

Short story: The method by which money is expended from the Outdoor Heritage Fund -- the fish, game and wildlife portion of Legacy money -- is accessible, transparent and, through the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, "provides oversight of the appropriations on an ongoing basis," according to the auditor.

The Lessard-Sams council recommends projects to the Legislature most likely to help fulfill habitat goals of a 25-year conservation framework.

Yet even before the council was established in state statute in the run-up to the 2008 Legacy Amendment vote, a handful of legislators, notably Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, attacked it.

When hunters and anglers proposed formation of the council to safeguard the Outdoor Heritage Fund from legislators, Hansen insisted he and his Capitol colleagues were better suited to spend the money.

If citizens wanted to take part, "they should get an election certificate" -- meaning run for office -- Hansen said. Since then, he has advocated for the council to be disbanded, even though, ironically, he was one of its original members.

But the state's hunters and anglers -- the primary drivers behind the 2008 Legacy vote that increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent -- had been fooled previously by legislators and weren't about to let it happen again.

The Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, for example, supported by proceeds from the state lottery, was raided not long after the ink dried on the constitutional amendment establishing it.

And until the legislative committee that recommends expenditures from it was modified in recent years to include citizens, the account was considered by some observers to be little more than a slush fund into which senators and representatives dipped to send money to their home districts.

Indeed, had not the Legislature been convinced to establish the Lessard-Sams Council in statute, it's likely many, if not most, hunters and anglers would have voted against the Legacy Amendment. As it happened, nearly 60 percent of voters supported it, a landslide.

At issue since its passage is whether citizen council members should in any way be aligned with conservation or other groups that receive council funding recommendations.

The common-sense answer is: Of course. It's they who have the expertise, experience, knowledge and passion to properly direct fund expenditures.

Such valued council members, past and present, include, among others, University of Minnesota professor Mike Kilgore, Nobles County Pheasants Forever chapter president Scott Rall and retired Star Tribune outdoors columnist and TV personality Ron Schara.

These Minnesotans, like others who have served or now serve on the council, have strong conservation ethics and give freely of their time in hopes the state's wetlands might someday be restored, its remaining prairies preserved, its forests kept whole, and to ensure as well that the many recreational opportunities these lands and waters afford to residents be sustained indefinitely.

I'm not alone in defense of such volunteers in oversight positions of Legacy Amendment money. Here's what the legislative auditor's report says on the subject:

"We accept that there is value to the state in having people on Legacy-related groups who are knowledgeable about and committed to the public purposes supported by the Legacy Amendment. We acknowledge that they are likely to have relationships and affiliations that will create at least the appearance of conflicts. While some people find that inappropriate and unacceptable, we think the best resolution is for the state to maintain strong conflict of interest policies and ... vigorously adhere to them."

Short story (made a little longer): If you're a hunter, angler or other conservationist who voted for the Legacy Amendment, processes and safeguards are in place to optimize chances money for fish, game and wildlife habitat is being well-allocated, and that improvements to the state, over time, will follow.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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