Capitol Update for March 7, 2008

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“Why cannot we, however, have a real wild park…”

Alfred J. Hill
St. Paul Dispatch, 1890*

In the late 1800s, Minnesota was at the height of its lumber days with millions of acres of virgin forest being consumed by our growing nation’s insatiable demand to build.  After a camping trip at the source of the Mississippi River, Alfred J. Hill, a prominent archaeologist, wrote the above words in an editorial calling for the creation of Minnesota’s first State Park before our wild places were all devoured by this demand.  Visionary activists like Hill and Jacob V. Brower, along with many others, pushed the Legislature for the park’s creation despite strong opposition from powerful lumbering companies who had their eyes on continued exploitation of the great white pines that surrounded Lake Itasca.

A vision for a state park system that was more than just a picnic playground, but included presentations of Minnesota’s wild and scenic places, was truly ahead of its time.  This was only a few short years after the protection of Yellowstone by the federal government and the vast tracts in the Adirondacks by the State of New York.  Given the success of our state park system and the preservation of our wild places, it would be easy to just assume that the decision to establish our first State Park was a cinch.

The reality is that the legislation establishing the park passed by a razor thin margin and was nearly crippled by amendments placed on the bill from logging interests.  Nonetheless, the bill establishing Minnesota’s first State Park was signed into law on April 20, 1891, by Governor William R. Marriam.  A significant portion of the land was already owned by the federal or the state government, but the remainder was not finally purchased until 1921, after years of battling the logging companies.  The good news is this effort touched off Minnesota’s long effort in preserving our great outdoors for future generations.

The 2008 Legislative Session is the latest in the struggle for the preservation and restoration of our wild places as legislators work to pass their Capital Investments Bill, and right in the middle of the mix is a possible new major state park, this time on Lake Vermilion near Tower, Minnesota.

This week both the House and Senate adopted their proposal for capital investments which are financed through the sale of bonds.  The Minnesota Constitution does not allow the Legislature to borrow money to run the state.  Nonetheless, it does allow the Legislature under narrow circumstances to borrow money for long-term investments in capital assets.

It is typical for the Legislature to adopt its two-year capital investment proposals on the second year of the legislative session.  Traditionally the Capital Investment Bill is the last or one of the last bills to be passed during the second year of the session.

Overall this session has been anything but typical.  Most sessions start out at a snail’s pace with committees mulling over topics and then they build towards a crescendo where dozens of major bills are passed in the last week session.  By contrast, this session started out at a breakneck pace and has not slowed down.  In the first three weeks of session, legislators have already passed the Great Outdoors and Heritage Constitutional Amendment, a historical transportation bill with its accompanying veto override, a major tax bill and each of their respective capital investments bill proposals.

It took great skill by the Capital Investment Committee chairs to assemble a bill that passed 57 to 9 in the Senate and 99 to 34 in the House.  Senate chair Keith Langseth (DFL- Glyndon) is a crafty veteran with eight years of experience as chair of the committee.  His House counterpart Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) is only serving her first term as chair of this committee, but a reputation as a consensus builder has been earned in her 20 years of service.

The rumor is that the conference committee will move quickly towards a resolution.  The conference committee has already been selected and they will be working vigorously to finish the bill by next week.  The additional Senate conference committee members are Sandra Pappas (DFL-St. Paul), David Tomassoni (DFL – Chisholm), Linda Scheid (DFL-Brooklyn Park), and Paul Koering (R – Fort Ripley).  The additional House conference members are Jean Wagenius (DFL-Minneapolis), Loren Solberg (DFL – Grand Rapids), Bev Scalze (DFL – Little Canada), and Kathy Tingelstad (R- Andover).

A small side note – it was nice to see Kathy Tingelstad receive the honor of being the Republican House member on the conference committee.  She was punished recently by the Republican Caucus when she was stripped of her position as the lead Republican on the Capital Investments Committee.  This punishment occurred because of her courageous vote to override the governor on the transportation bill that provided a record infusion of resources for transit which MEP supported.  It’s the minority leader who selects the Republican leads, but Speaker Anderson Kelliher selects the conference committee members.

Over time, the conservation community has been successful in obtaining a portion of the Capital Investments Bill for purchase of conservation easements, wastewater treatment, state parks, trails and other natural resources preservations.  As is a tradition, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership makes recommendations to the Legislature on what investments they think are critical for inclusion in the Capital Investment Bill.  MEP’s many groups identified 29 specific investments they recommended to the Legislature.

The overall environment numbers in this year’s capitol investment proposals so far have been relatively good.  The Senate had about 20% of its bill in environmental type projects and the House about 25%.  This is on par and somewhat higher than past bonding bills.  Nonetheless, the conference committee will face a daunting task because the recent budget forecast would indicate that they need to shrink their overall bonding amount.  Specific categories within an environmental sphere that did well were wastewater treatment under the Clean Water Legacy Act and the overall numbers for parks and trails.

There were a few areas of major disappointment for the MEP proposals.  The Next Generation Bio-fuels Easements that would have established perennial grasslands for energy production only received $3.3 million in the Senate and were not part of the proposal in the House.  We were asking for a $46 million investment.  The House did provide some flexibility within their existing conservation easements for bio-fuels production, but not the targeted program we were looking to create.

Another major disappointment was the Working Forest Legacy Easements which were designed to acquire large tracts of forest land to protect them from development.  We were proposing a $30 million investment, but the Senate is only recommending $9 million and the House recommended a disappointing zero.  Also a disappointment was both bodies not recommending any investments in Metro Greenways or Local Initiative Grants which provide matching dollars with local communities for protection of outstanding environmental areas.

One of the biggest challenges this session will happen around the establishment and acquisition of the next flagship state park along Lake Vermilion.  Last July, the DNR announced it had begun negotiations to purchase some 3,000 acres on one of Minnesota’s most pristine lakes.  Lake Vermilion is a beautiful gem of a lake not far from the Boundary Waters Wilderness, with one of the most varied and dynamic lakeshores in the nation.  The House has dedicated a significant portion of its environmental funding ($15 million) to acquire this parcel from the present owner, U.S. Steel.  The Senate committees removed language that would have authorized use of the lottery trust fund dollars for debt service.  The governor proposed using a portion of the growth in the environmental trust fund to pay off the debt service on the bonds.  This allowed the governor to have more flexibility and to stretch available dollars.

Unfortunately, some conservation groups are worried about losses in future projects funded by the trust fund.  The DNR commissioner argues that it will not reduce existing projects and will only take a portion of the trust fund increases which would normally go through the Legislative – Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).  The governor has made it clear to the Legislature that establishing the park is a top priority.  It certainly would be a great legacy for Minnesota.

The Vermilion State Park, as with the battle for the establishment of Itasca State Park, is shaping up to be quite a significant challenge.  Local politics in northern Minnesota do not take kindly to private land being acquired by the State and taken off the property tax rolls.  Therefore, the separate legislation just introduced to authorize the Park (SF3076/HF3433), authored by the local legislators Senator Tom Bakk and Rep. David Dill, would require approval by the St. Louis County Board and the sale of comparable public land somewhere else including along lake shores – something opposed by environmental advocates.

We can only hope that this Legislature in the coming week will demonstrate that same courage our early leaders did in preserving our wild places.  We cannot afford to let this historic opportunity to establish a phenomenal State Park on Lake Vermilion, and all the other investments which are so critical for preserving our wild places for future generations, pass us by.  With 1.2 million people coming to Minnesota in the next two decades, this Legislature will need to act now so our children and grandchildren can marvel at what we so easily take for granted today – the beauty of Minnesota’s great outdoors.

Click here for more information about MEP’s Outdoor Traditions Investment proposals.

*Quote and state park history obtained from “Everyone’s Country Estate, a History of Minnesota’s State Parks” by Roy W. Meyer, Minnesota Historical Society Press 1997

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