With the recent news that the state's economy is showing signs of recovery, and a budget surplus projected, the next obvious debate is what to do with the surplus.
We hear frequently about tax rebates, rainy day funds and repaying the school funding shift, but I want to propose an alternative that is not being addressed.
Now is the time for the state to also begin repaying the conservation shift.
What is the conservation shift, you ask?
While an analysis of state conservation spending shows that state leaders have done a good job of protecting voter approved Legacy Amendment funds from raids, over the past dozen years, the state of Minnesota has repeatedly dipped into various conservation and environmental budgets and even dedicated conservation funds to stem the seemingly annual tides of budgetary peril.
Between 2001 and 2013, the state slashed general fund spending on conservation by 66 percent, going from .22 percent of state general fund spending to .072 percent. In addition, revenues from fees and other funds intended for environmental programs were raided and used to fill budget holes, including significant raids of solid waste tax revenues (that are supposed to be used for recycling and landfill cleanup) and lottery funds intended for natural resource protection.
The 2013 Legislature made some small increases for conservation, including additional funds for groundwater management and parks and trails, but delayed the repayment of funds raided from the closed landfill investment fund and failed to repay the other conservation funds that have been pilfered in the last decade.
With the budget picture now recovering, we are truly at a crossroads.
Do we, as a state, show our continued commitment to the environment and conservation by repaying these shifts that served their purpose in helping us out of previous budget jams. Or, do we decide that protecting our lakes and rivers and conserving our natural resources is no longer a priority for the state, and allow these alleged shifts to become permanent cuts?
For details, you can view Conservation Minnesota’s 2014 State Budget Analysis here.