A mild-mannered visual artist from St. Paul's East Side has been chosen to chair a state Senate committee that's key to the future of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation in Minnesota.
Sen. Foung Hawj (pronounced HER) is a bow hunter, angler, recreational landowner, wild berry picker, hiker and canoeist with extensive experience in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He's been a supporter of programs to boost youth participation in the outdoors, opposes wolf hunting and sits on the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).
His recent selection by party leaders as chairman of the Senate Legacy and Natural Resources Committee makes him responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in annual spending for the benefit of fish, wildlife, clean water, parks, trails, lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, forests and prairies. The word "Legacy'' in his committee is short for the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment passed by voters in 2008 to fund protection of natural resources and to preserve arts and cultural heritage.
"Environmental preservation is a priority and we're a leading state in America,'' Hawj said this week in an interview.
In the Senate, he'll work closely with colleague Nick Frentz of North Mankato. Frentz was named chairman of the Energy, Utilities, Environment and Climate Committee. Both senators will deal with issues important to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), but Hawj's committee is poised to deal more heavily in fishing, hunting, wildlife, parks and trails legislation. Frentz and Hawj will replace Republican senators Carrie Ruud of Breezy Point and Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria, who did not run for re-election after leading natural resources committees for several years.
Ruud said in an interview that Hawj is honorable and someone she trusted to represent the Senate's position on bills sent to conference committee. He was the ranking Democrat on her Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee.
"Philosophically we are on opposite ends of the planet but we were able to work together,'' said Ruud, a champion of the outdoors who stood up to leaders in her caucus when they derailed or delayed well-meaning natural resources legislation.
She favors the new committee structure that will give Hawj sway over outdoors policy and outdoors finance, but fears he may have too much on his plate. In the coming year, he'll bear responsibility for steering a Legacy Omnibus Bill that could be worth nearly $400 million. Meanwhile, he'll have to break in a new committee administrator and help resuscitate a Senate environment bill that wasn't passed in 2022, she said.
"It's going to be a big lift,'' Ruud said.
Hawj, who lives near the south end of Lake Phalen and owns 30 acres of recreational land in Kanabec County, said he shares several legislative goals with his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul. The two committee chairmen have already agreed to push for early passage of the LCCMR environmental spending bill crafted by citizens and legislators to prioritize spending of state lottery proceeds held in an environmental trust fund. Repeatedly in the recent past, the bill was delayed or blocked by Senate Republicans who used it as a bargaining chip.
"I've been a little frustrated that we've put the LCCMR bill into partisan conflict,'' Hawj said. "We're looking for a new era of consensus.''
Hansen, the dean of outdoors legislation at the Capitol, said early passage of the LCCMR bill in 2023 will enhance chances for Minnesota to extend the funding mechanism. Currently, it's guaranteed by the state Constitution until Dec. 31, 2024.
"Yes, we'll be looking at Environmental Trust Fund reauthorization … getting that on the ballot,'' Hansen said.
Other low-hanging fruit expected to be picked by the committees headed by Hawj and Hansen include full restoration of "lottery-in-lieu" funding for state parks, metro area parks and trails, and fish and game purposes. The move would add about $12 million a year to a $38 million pot of money devoted to those outdoor causes. Despite Ruud's strong push to recapture the funding, it wasn't adopted by the Senate.
Hawj and Hansen said they'll also look to reform laws pertaining to the oversight of deer farms in Minnesota. State wildlife biologists have told lawmakers that deer farms have contributed to the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wild deer. One proposal still considered viable by Hansen is to place a moratorium on the establishment of any new deer farms in the state.
"Because of CWD, we need to re-evaluate how to make deer farming safer,'' Hawj said.
Both committee chairs hunt whitetails in Minnesota. Hawj, who is self-deprecating about his bow-hunting and fishing expertise, said he's harvested only a handful of deer in 20 years. "I'm not that skilled, but it allows me to be out there in nature, meditating,'' he said.
A proud member of St. Paul's Hmong community and first elected to the Senate in 2012, Hawj helped to protect turtles from over-harvest and passed a bill to clean up the polluted Pig's Eye area in his district. As a dedicated canoeist, he favors group trips to the BWCA that involve friends and family. Over many years. he's launched into the BWCA from at least 70% of its entry points, he said.
"It's our last vast wilderness, full of pristine water,'' Hawj said.
While a big part of his agenda is to help preserve the natural world for future generations, he's also happy to be in a position to fortify the arts community. Self-employed over the years as a video editor, producer and consultant, he's now responsible for overseeing Legacy arts grants. The Legacy Amendment increased the state sales tax by three-eights of 1% for distribution to four funds: 33% for fish and wildlife habitat and other outdoor heritage purposes; 33% for clean water; 19.75% for arts and cultural heritage, and the rest for parks and trails.
It's a job he lobbied for, he said. "I'm looking forward to holding the gavel.''