State lawmakers began the 2021 session saying they would move quickly to pass a backlog of recommended wildlife habitat projects and environmental research tied to state lottery proceeds.

But a key Senate committee this week created an outcry by introducing major changes to the list of outdoors projects that was first settled upon in 2019 by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).

The action by the Republican-controlled Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee now has complicated the approval process for $131.8 million worth of LCCMR-recommended investments adopted by the commission in 2019 and 2020. Money for the projects is in the bank.

In the past, LCCMR bills have traveled separately through the Legislature, passing intact or with modest changes. But now the 2019 list of projects has been changed substantially and lumped into a bill that also cuts general fund appropriations to the Department of Natural Resources by $18 million. The big omnibus bill also demands a wolf hunt this fall, allows hunters to leave temporary tree stands inside wildlife management areas and proposes a reduction in the statewide walleye bag limit from six to four.

If the amalgamated bill passes the Senate Finance Committee next week, it would go to the Senate floor.

Aaron Klemz, a spokesman for Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, described the changes to the LCCMR's 2019 list of projects as a "gutting.'' On a 5-3 partisan vote, the committee slashed $8.4 million worth of recommended items by deleting 12 projects on the list and reducing money the LCCMR wanted for parks and trails purposes. The biggest hits — totaling $3.17 million — were directed against pollinator habitat and research projects.

What's worse, Klemz said, is that the committee added wastewater treatment and flood control projects to the list in lieu of projects that were deleted. Those routine infrastructure expenses shouldn't legally be covered by state lottery proceeds and related investment income, he said. In 1988, state voters created the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund by approving a constitutional amendment for the conservation of "air, water, land, fish, wildlife and other natural resources.'' Citizens and legislators who make up LCCMR annually recommend to the Legislature where that money should be spent.

Klemz and others have insisted that the funds are constitutionally dedicated to supplement state spending on the outdoors, not supplant it. Wastewater infrastructure enhancements and other municipal water projects would deplete the fund, the critics say. Instead, the water projects should continue to be financed with state bonding and other loan programs, they say.

"It's really frustrating as an advocate who has been watching this for a while,'' Klemz said. "This is not what the process should look like.''

Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. His committee accepted LCCMR's funding recommendations early this year and intended to advance them to the House floor separate from other legislation. But the Senate's approach to alter the 2019 list of LCCMR projects and bundle it with a bunch of other measures complicates matters, he said.

"They are playing games with it again,'' Hansen said this week in an interview. "It's outrageous.''

Senate Republicans last year admittedly withheld approval of the 2019 LCCMR package as a way to push back against state implementation of a "clean car" emissions rule. Hansen said he was hopeful for a turnaround this year after two key Republicans said publicly at the outset of the session that the 2019 and 2020 LCCMR funding packages should be moved along and "out the door.''

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, was one of those senators. Yet it was his committee that dramatically altered the 2019 list of projects. Ingebrigtsen said in an interview Thursday that the addition of wastewater projects, rural septic funding and flood control investments is legal, based on advice from experts.

"They [opponents] say it's unconstitutional, but that's not right,'' Ingebrigtsen said. "Let's get some clean water stuff out there. … It's a different philosophy.''

He said his committee deleted pollinator projects because the state has already invested heavily in that area and can afford a one-year break. "It's not like we haven't paid attention to pollinators,'' he said.

The bill advanced by Ingebrigtsen's committee also reduced by $2 million grants intended for Minnesota's Scientific and Natural Area public lands and DNR Parks and Trails.

Ingebrigtsen said that of all the elements included in his committee's omnibus bill, LCCMR expenditures "are the biggest grind.'' He said it's still not out of the question for the Senate to isolate the LCCMR provisions for separate consideration if it helps to pass them. Hansen has told his colleagues in the House he is hoping for such an approach. So far, neither the House nor Senate has altered the 2020 package of LCCMR projects in need of legislative approval.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213