Why exactly Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature believe the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF) — consisting of lottery money dedicated constitutionally to be spent on conservation and the environment — is their own private piggy bank, is anyone's guess.
But they apparently do.
How else to explain Senate Republicans' indifference to the will of the 77% of Minnesota voters who in 1987 established the ENRTF "to provide a long-term, consistent and stable source of funding for activities that protect, conserve, preserve, and enhance Minnesota's air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources' for the benefit of current citizens and future generations?''
To recommend expenditures from the fund, the 17-member Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) is charged with sifting through hundreds of proposed conservation projects submitted each year by individuals, nonprofit groups and government agencies.
Since 1991, about $875 million has been allocated from the ENRTF to pay for 1,800 projects.
Here, for example, are two of 88 highly worthwhile projects funded by the ENRTF last year:
• $424,000 to the U, working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), to evaluate invasive carp passage and the costs, processes, and potential for a state-of-the-art deterrent system installed at Mississippi River Lock and Dam No. 5 to impede passage of invasive carp at that location.
• $423,000 to the Morrison County Soil and Water Conservation District to continue to eradicate the state's northernmost occurrences of oak wilt through mechanical means on select private properties to prevent oak wilt's spread to healthy state forests.
Consisting of five members of the House, five of the Senate and seven citizens, the LCCMR depends heavily on its staff to ensure that submitted projects are accompanied by work plans that include detailed budgets, as well as timelines for completion and other details.
Good government is the key here, and contracts signed between the state and project leaders ensure that awarded money is spent as intended.
The contracts also require progress reports to be filed with LCCMR so follow-ups can be undertaken to confirm that projects were completed correctly and on time.
Prioritizing and selecting projects in advance of their awarding requires about nine months of work by the LCCMR. The efforts of the commission's seven volunteer citizen members are especially noteworthy. They contribute their time in good faith, and assume the commission's 10 legislative members do likewise.
But that's not always the case.
Witness earlier this month when Sen. Torrey Westrom, a Republican LCCMR member from Elbow Lake and chair of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Finance and Policy Committee, amended an ENRTF bill that ultimately was passed out of Alexandria Republican Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen's Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee that deleted 25 projects vetted by the commission, changed the funding of 11 other vetted projects and added 19 projects that had not even been submitted to the LCCMR for funding.
More brazenly still, Westrom and other Republicans on the committee, including Ingebrigtsen, who is also an LCCMR member, exempted the 19 new projects from submitting the work plans that are otherwise required for LCCMR proposals. Absent these, the commission — and Minnesotans — can't determine whether the projects were completed as intended.
As importantly, by law LCCMR allocations are supposed to supplement Minnesota natural resources funding, not supplant it. Otherwise, as voters intended when they approved lottery money for the environment, no conservation gains would be made from the new funding.
Ingebrigtsen has said his party's leadership wants no money, zero, allotted this session from the general fund for conservation and environmental protection. Consequently, dedicated funds such as the ENRTF are ripe for raiding to pay for projects that otherwise would be paid for out of the general fund.
All of which is thinking on a very small scale, considering the ever-increasing near- and long-term threats facing Minnesota's natural resources.
One contributing problem is that the Legislature no longer counts among its rolls a critical mass of conservation-minded members.
Gone are the days when leaders and the rank and file of both parties defined the common good as — at a minimum — conserving perpetually, to the degree possible, the state's woods, waters, forests and prairies.
Conservation-minded Republican legislators from yesteryear that included Bob Dunn, Doug Ewald, John Rose and Denny Frederickson, among many others, often found common ground on key environmental issues with the likes of DFLers Willard Munger, Dallas Sams, Steve Novak and Gene Merriam, along with independents — or at least independent thinkers — such as Charlie Berg and Bob Lessard.
The partisanship that festers instead today at the Capitol is rooted in a Minnesota law change in 1973, before which legislators were elected on nonpartisan ballots, and only when gathered at the Capitol caucused either with liberals or conservatives.
In coming days, we'll see whether the Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate forwards Westrom's substitute project proposals to a House-Senate conference committee.
All of which, from beginning to end, constitutes a waste of time, energy and, quite possibly, a chunk of ENRTF money.
But as Thomas Jefferson said, "The government you elect is the government you deserve.''