Election's effect on Legacy Amendment is awaited

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2012 - 12:45 AM

Members of the Outdoor Heritage Council say change in the Legislature likely won't affect group's independence.

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Duck hunting was excellent along the 2,000-acre parcel that Crow Wing County, with the help of the Trust for Public Land and the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

Photo: Bill Marchel, Special to the Star Tribune

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Will sweeping political changes at the State Capitol, where DFLers wrested control of the Legislature from Republicans on Election Day, affect how hundreds of millions of Legacy Amendment dollars are spent on fish, game and wildlife habitat in coming years?

Members of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, and close observers, say that though some new members likely will be appointed in 2013, they believe the council has been -- and will continue to be -- largely politically independent.

"I don't think it [the election] will have a big effect,'' said David Hartwell of Minneapolis, who has been on the 12-member council since its inception in 2008 and has been chairman the past two years. "The system works pretty well.''

Still, eight of the 12 members are up for reappointment, including Hartwell. And Gary Botzek of the Minnesota Conservation Federation, who follows the council closely, said outdoor supporters must be ever watchful for "mischief'' at the Capitol, especially when it comes to spending the nearly $100 million a year of Legacy Amendment dollars dedicated to fish and wildlife habitat.

"It's even more important now to keep our eye on the target,'' he said.

Supporters of the amendment wanted a citizens council -- not politicians -- to guide spending.

So far, the council has gotten high grades from many observers, including Botzek and Garry Leaf of Sportsmen for Change, which pushed for passage of the constitutional amendment in 2008 dedicating three-eighths of 1 percent of the state sales tax to the outdoors.

"Politics are what they are at the Capitol, but I don't see the focus of the Lessard-Sams Council changing,'' Leaf said. "That was the purpose of creating it, to depoliticize the spending.''

Said Botzek: "No board or commission is insulated from the politics of elected officials. Having general public input is the key, however. The process has worked for four years, and hopefully it will continue to work into the future.''

Of the approximately $300 million raised annually by the tax, one third goes to restore, protect and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests and fish and wildlife habitat. Another third goes to clean water projects, 19 percent goes to arts and culture and 14 percent goes to parks and trails.

The Lessard-Sams council reviews proposals for the fish and wildlife habitat portion and makes recommendations to the Legislature, which ultimately decides where the money goes.

But so far, the Legislature has closely followed the council's recommendations.

"Have we done everything perfectly?'' Hartwell asked. "No. But most things we've done well. I'm really proud of the work we've done.''

Said Leaf: "I think they've done a phenomenal job. It's worked as good or better then what was sold to voters in 2008.''

But changes could be coming. The council is composed of eight citizens and four legislators, two from each party. The terms of four citizen members -- Hartwell, Ryan Bronson of Eagan, Wayne Enger of Perham and Les Bensch of Ashby-- expire in January. All are seeking reappointment.

The governor appoints two of those openings, the House and Senate each one.

"Preserving the environment for future generations is the most important thing we're doing,'' Bensch said. "I feel we have the council on a good track.''

Because DFLers now control the House and Senate, the four legislators on the council also could change. Those four now are Rep. Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul; Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings; Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.

The Speaker of the House appoints the two representatives; a Senate subcommittee appoints the two Senators.

The current council has approved 33 projects totaling $92 million that will go to the Legislature in 2013. It will be the fifth year of 25 years of appropriations. The amendment -- and the flow of dollars to the outdoors -- sunsets in 2034.

INVOLVEMENT

Applications for the council are being taken until Nov. 27. See startribune.com/a1914 for details.

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