It appears that Gov. Mark Dayton has succeeded in stripping the Minnesota Historical Society of its statutory authority as the state's preservation office.
An omnibus bill passed by both the House and Senate during the special legislative session includes provisions to audit the historical society's management of preservation work and then move the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) by March 2018 to the Department of Administration, which reports to the governor.
All that is needed to finalize the move is the signature of Dayton, who had proposed the move due to what he considered the SHPO's inefficiency and lack of accountability.
The governor's proposal on the SHPO came just months after the historical society had taken a stand against Dayton over the return of Civil War artwork to the newly renovated State Capitol. Dayton's staff said that did not play a role in the decision.
"We are really disappointed," said Jessica Kohen, historical society spokeswoman. "We definitely believe the State Historic Preservation Office housed in the Minnesota Historical Society definitely benefits Minnesotans."
She added that the historical society will cooperate with the move.
The SHPO has been under the auspices of the historical society since it was formed in 1969. It works with federal agencies to enforce the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act and administers federal grant programs.
The preservation office, in conjunction with federal authorities, last year reviewed more than 3,000 development and infrastructure projects to ensure that historic and cultural sites were identified and protected. It found issues requiring mitigation or additional planning in fewer than 1 percent of the cases, said Stephen Elliott, CEO of the historical society, who has forcefully defended the preservation work at legislative hearings.
Kohen said the historical society had never gotten a clear answer or guidance as to problems cited by the governor's office with its preservation work.
The special session wasn't all bad news for the historical society. It received $4 million in the bonding bill to cover design work for improvements at Historic Fort Snelling, including a new visitors center to be housed in a cavalry barracks and an 1880s ordnance building.
"This is a very strong signal of the governor's and the Legislature's support for this critical investment in our state's cultural heritage," said Elliott in a written statement. "This commitment will help us move the revitalization of Historic Fort Snelling forward, and we will advocate for the construction funding next year to complete the project in time for the fort's bicentennial in 2020."
The Minnesota Historical Society is a nonprofit that, while independent of the state, relies on it for nearly 60 percent of its $60 million-plus annual budget. About $2 million of that goes toward running the preservation office.