Capitol Update for February 6, 2009

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“Please Walk on Grass”
-Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis Park Board Sign in the early 1900s*

Changing past political paradigms can be a challenge at any time in history.  A century ago the landscape of our City of Lakes reached a turning point when Minneapolis hired Switzerland born Theodore Wirth to be superintendent of the Park Board.  Between 1906 and 1935, this visionary land planner who started out as a tree trimmer in Central Park transformed Minneapolis and the surrounding communities.  His vision of a community built around the Chain of Lakes with green spaces flowing through the community was a revolutionary change in urban development.  He was credited with tripling the Park Board’s land to more than 5,200 acres.  He was one of the early visionaries in the development of the Metropolitan Park System which now covers 52,000 acres in six counties serving 35 million visitors annually.  This visionary system is still considered one of the best urban park systems in the country.

When Wirth arrived in Minnesota, one of the first things he did was open up parks to active enjoyment.  In order to emphasize the active enjoyment of our parks, he put up signs like “please walk on grass.”  The change in our view of the Great Outdoors and our parks was something that he had to push hard over time, but the result has been a lasting legacy.  It would be fair to say that a significant majority of Minnesotans’ first memories of outdoor recreation probably occurred in one of the parks envisioned by this paradigm changer.

A little over a hundred years after Theodore Wirth arrived in Minnesota, we face another new paradigm shift in park, land and water planning.  With the adoption of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Minnesota voters sent a clear message of how deeply they value our Great Outdoors heritage.  Now the Legislature has to give vision and direction to this historic new commitment by the voters.  It was fortunate that the drafters of the constitutional language put in a simple but significant phrase: “The dedicated money under this section must supplement traditional sources of funding for these purposes and may not be used as a substitute.”  The temptation to just take the estimated $194 million of new revenue as part of a short-term fix to the present budget crisis has a strong constitutional deterrent.  This language also gives the environmental community an argument to protect the existing 1.2% of our general fund budget and other dedicated funding sources encompassed in the categories of the constitutional amendment.

This week we received some greater clarity on the process the Legislature is going to use in addressing the constitutional amendment.  As previously reported, the House has already established a committee chaired by Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL – Hermantown) to direct the investments of the revenue raised from the constitutional amendment.  The Senate has now set up its structure to move forward.

The chair of the Senate Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division, Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul), has established subcommittees to work on particular funding initiatives identified in the Constitution.  The language of the Constitution specifically divides the resources into four distinct areas and her committee has direct jurisdiction over three categories: outdoor heritage, clean water, and parks and trails.  The outdoor heritage funding will be the responsibility of the existing Subcommittee on Natural Resources chaired by Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL – Grand Rapids).  The outdoor heritage funding also has a statutory oversight committee known as the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council made up of citizens and legislative appointees.  The Council is named in honor of former Senator Bob Lessard who was one of the early authors of the dedicated funding bill and is still active in promoting this initiative.

The two new subcommittees will be the Clean Water Subcommittee and the Parks and Trails Subcommittee.  Clean Water will be chaired by Sen. Sandy Rummel (DFL – White Bear Lake).  She’ll be joined on the committee by Senators Gary Kubly (DFL – Granite Falls), Satveer Chaudhary (DFL – Fridley), Patricia Torres-Ray (DFL-Minneapolis), Dennis Frederickson (R – New Ulm), Steve Dille (R – Dassel) and Anderson.  This subcommittee had its first hearing on Thursday where they heard testimony regarding the recommendations by the Clean Water Council to invest $171.8 million.  This Council was created by the Clean Water Legacy Act to oversee appropriations made to the multiple agencies which are charged with cleaning up our impaired lakes and rivers.  This is a significant increase over the $53.9 million invested in the Clean Water Legacy in the previous biennium.  It will be up to this committee to establish an initial recommendation to the Senate Finance Committee on Clean Water Legacy funding.  There has also been some talk about reshaping the Clean Water Council; we will continue to monitor how that plays out this session.

The new Parks and Trails Subcommittee will be chaired by Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray.  She’ll be joined on the committee by Senators Anderson, Saxhaug, Frederickson, Rummel, Tom Bakk (DFL – Cook), Jim Vickerman (DFL – Tracy), Pat Pariseau (R – Farmington) and David Hann (R – Eden Prairie).  It is anticipated this subcommittee will have its first hearing next week.

On the positive victory front, several of MEP’s land conservation and agriculture members have been working hard on repealing changes made last year to a property tax program known as Green Acres.  No, it’s not a program to create a bad sitcom starring over the hill actors and actresses with the theme of wealthy Manhattan dwellers moving out to the country.  (For those of you under 40, you can ask about that silly statement privately.)  It is actually a program created back in the 1960s to equalize farm property taxes.  It lowers the property tax valuation for farms receiving development pressure to encourage those farms to stay in farming and not sell to developers simply because of increasing property tax valuations.  Several changes were made in the program last year which essentially discouraged farmers from setting aside some of their farm for conservation purposes.  There has been a strong outcry from the agriculture community and conservation groups that this change will create disincentives for preservation of some critical wildlife and shoreland acres.

On Tuesday of this week the Agriculture and Veterans Committee, chaired by Sen. Jim Vickerman heard S.F. 386, authored by Sen. Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook), which would have modified some of the changes made last year to the Green Acres program.  His goal is to try to fix some of the mistakes made last year, but several organizations have been pushing for a complete repeal of the 2008 changes.  Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes (DFL-Winona) offered an amendment that repeals the changes made last year and puts the Green Acres program back to its previous status.  On a strong bipartisan vote, the Erickson Ropes amendment was adopted by the committee.  The bill now moves on to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Finally, the outline for the remainder of the legislative session is taking shape with the adoption of committee deadlines by both the House and Senate.  The deadlines for the 2009 session are:
• March 27 at 8 p.m., committees act favorably on bills in the House of origin;
• April 7 at 11:59 p.m., committees act favorably on bills, or companion of bills, that met the first deadline in the other body (Legislature will take a week break from April 7 through April 14);
• April 16, divisions of House and Senate finance committees act favorably on omnibus appropriation bills;
• April 22, House and Senate finance and taxes committees, and the House Ways and Means Committee, act favorably on omnibus appropriation and tax bills; and
• May 7, conference committees on omnibus appropriations and tax bills must report bills to the floor.

Unfortunately, raiding conservation and environment funds has been the standard practice in recent state budgets.  Therefore, the Green Team has a difficult task ahead in changing this paradigm and instead obtaining meaningful long-term investments in our Great Outdoors even during a budget crisis year.  Thanks to the voters, we actually have some strength in changing that paradigm with the constitutional language preserving our funding and requiring more investments in our Great Outdoors.  Hopefully, our children and grandchildren will be putting up signs like “go swimming — the water’s clean” and “public wildlife area, enjoy”.  I think old Theodore Wirth would approve.

*Minnesota 150. The People, Places and Things That Shape Our State.  Kate Roberts, Minnesota Historical Society Press (2007).

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