Now again on a fine spring day we must consider anew the complexities that politics can make of simplicity, referencing here what should be the straightforward process of distributing money from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF.)
Recall that at or about this time last year and also in 2018 I wrote columns suggesting that Republican legislators had made a banana republic-like laughingstock of the ENRTF appropriation process.
The heart of the matter then is not so different now: Senate Republicans, hesitant to fund through bonding much-needed rural wastewater treatment plants, intend instead to steer money from the ENRTF to those worthy causes.
The ENRTF was created when 77 % of Minnesota voters approved the state lottery in 1988. The marketing effort that underwrote the get-out-the-vote campaign supporting the lottery promised that fund proceeds would push back against the inexorable march of industry, agriculture and development that has diminished so much of Minnesota’s natural resources, beginning at statehood.
It wasn’t by accident then, nor is it now, that the state’s most beloved bird, the loon, is the lottery’s logo — suggesting as it obviously does that, while a Powerball ticket buyer might, and probably will, lose his $2 bet, the environment ultimately will be a winner.
Yet almost before the ink on the constitutional amendment establishing the lottery had dried, legislators had their sticky fingers in the cookie jar, reducing the amount of lottery proceeds dedicated to conservation and increasing the share going to the state’s general fund.
Still, and this is the good news, since 1991, lottery proceeds have paid for more than 1,700 conservation research, education and related projects statewide, totaling about $700 million.
Theoretically, the 17-member Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) safeguards distribution of lottery proceeds.
Comprising five members of the House of Representatives, five from the Senate, five citizen-volunteers appointed by the governor and one citizen-volunteer each appointed by the two legislative chambers, the LCCMR meets regularly to consider and vote on funding requests.
When completed, the commission’s recommendations are forwarded to the Legislature, which historically has fiddled with them only slightly before sending the project list to the governor for his signature.
This year, because of the coronavirus threat, just about everything is different at the Legislature. This is especially true now, in the session’s last days — legislators adjourn Monday — as a massive bill encompassing not just ENRTF funding, but Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency budgets and policy is considered in the House, and a similar measure, minus the ENRTF funding, is weighed in the Senate.
Leading the House DFL effort is Rep. Rick Hansen of South St. Paul and heading up the Senate side is Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.
Both are members of the LCCMR, which this year had $61.3 million to distribute from the ENRTF, of which — this is the part in dispute — $1.5 million was assigned to wastewater-treatment-plant upgrades.
Opponents of the wastewater-treatment-plant assignments say that while loans for these purposes are legal from the fund, direct payment for such uses is unconstitutional.
Yet no one disputes that many Minnesota towns need their wastewater treatment facilities upgraded, a problem that is especially acute in rural areas, where the tax base is insufficient to support improvements. Which is why Gov. Tim Walz has included more than $200 million for this purpose in his bonding bill proposal.
Republicans, meanwhile, argue that every available penny should be used in these COVID-19-cash-strapped times to clean up the state’s waters, thus their appropriation request from the ENRTF.
Unfortunate in this mess is that Ingebrigtsen, the Republican senator, can be stubborn, but he’s a good guy. Like Hansen, he’s been a valuable player over the years on many conservation issues, and his vote will be needed again by those who support natural resource stewardship.
That said, he and other Senate Republicans who have threatened to hold up all ENRTF appropriations this year if they don’t get the $1.5 million for wastewater plants are on the wrong side of the issue.
What’s more, if lottery proceeds dedicated to the environment are going to be renewed by voters in 2025, these types of disputes, played out acrimoniously now for three years running, have to stop.
To that end, in the coming legislative offseason, Ingebrigtsen, Hansen and other LCCMR members should spearhead a review, with public input, of ENRTF appropriations, with a goal of (1) recommitting commission members to the fund’s original, voter-approved purposes, (2) thereby optimizing the fund’s conservation’s benefits to the state and its residents ...
... And, (3) getting me off the hook from writing the same column at or about this time every spring.