Capitol Update for May 22, 2009

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“Twins 4, Cardinals 2. The Twins’ Magic carpet took Minnesota to the moon Sunday night. It was born by the sound of 55,000 exploding voices in the Metrodome and hundreds of thousands more from border to border in one floor-stomping, chest pounding declaration: We’re No.1.”

– Jim Klobuchar, Star Tribune, 10/26/87

Prior to 1987, Minnesotans had suffered for three decades under an inferiority complex because of our major-league teams. Four Super Bowl failures, no Stanley Cup in the state of hockey and, our only major-league team with any success, the Lakers basketball franchise, deserted us for Los Angeles of all places. Those of us who were in the stands for the ‘87 Baseball World Series actually believed we were spiriting our beloved Twins to victory by being as loud as we possibly could while waving those silly white homer hankies. We were determined to end the streak of almost champions right then and there under that Teflon roof. We actually believed we caused the normally cool St. Louis Cardinal pitchers Danny Cox and Todd Worrell to crack in the sixth by forcing them to issue three walks to load the bases. We were convinced it was our cheers that sped Twins’ shortstop Greg Gagne down the line on an infield hit to the plate, the eventual game-winning run following those three walks.

It was no doubt our raucous cheers that turned this ragtag team of misfits into world champions. How else can you explain Juan Berenguer turning from a B rate middle reliever into “Senior Smoke,” firing fastballs by one of the best hitting teams in baseball, like he was Cy Young himself. We believed the energy from the stands would propel our boys to a World Series victory and redeem us from our prison of self-doubt. For Minnesotans, that 1987 World Series was special. It was great to win the series again in 1991, but the moment third baseman Gary Gaetti scooped up the last attempt at a hit by the Cardinals and fired the ball over to Minnesota native Kent Hrbek for the last out of game seven, we felt a rebirth of pride in our great state. We all walked away from the dome actually believing it was our cheers that made it happen.

Well, overall the 2009 legislative session certainly will not be remembered with such glorious nostalgia as the ‘87 World Series. Even though the path to a final state budget was quite different this year, the result was essentially the same. The session ended with the same partisan rancor we have come to expect over the last couple of decades. Fortunately, like the Minnesota fans in the ‘87 World Series, the people of Minnesota spoke loudly and willed into being one of the greatest environmental successes in Minnesota history despite the political rancor of the 2009 legislative session.

Last fall, Minnesota voters spoke with a very loud voice in adopting the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Constitutional Amendment. More Minnesotans voted for this initiative than any thing or any person on a Minnesota ballot in our history. The 2009 legislative session was tasked with finalizing the first set of critical investments from this dedicated sales tax fund. On Monday evening, with only 45 minutes remaining in the session, the Minnesota Senate completed the last legislative act necessary to approve more than $300 million in new projects dedicated to protect lakes, rivers and streams and Minnesota’s Great Outdoors.

The Omnibus Culture and Outdoors Resources Finance Bill (HF1231) was sent to conference committee late last week with advocates hoping for a smooth and quick conference committee given only four days left in the session. Unfortunately, those last four days of searching for a compromise in the conference committee on HF1231 were anything but smooth. Any Minnesota Twins fan back in 1987 — if they were being honest with you — still had a nagging fear deep down inside that they were trying to suppress with their primal screams that somehow something would go wrong before the final out. That was no different this year with the Legacy Amendment funding.

It was clear the Legislature wanted to finish the session with one of their last actions being the adoption of the Legacy funding. After a brutal session, they wanted to cap it off with a positive finish. Unfortunately, the conference committee quickly broke down into an impasse, unable to even agree on how to negotiate. Those of us who had been involved in the long battle for the constitutional amendment started to have nagging fears we would have to relive the 2007 legislative session. That year the constitutional amendment was passed out of the conference committee late in the session, but the clock ran out on its adoption due to partisan squabbling on the House floor. Like memories of the four Super Bowl defeats of the Vikings, the Legacy fans in the Legislature were a little bit nervous that the Legislature would miss an opportunity to start making critical investments to protect our Great Outdoors.

There were inklings from the House conference committee chair, Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown), that the House of Representatives would be willing to delay the investments a year in order to do public hearings over the summer and make the first set of investments starting in 2010. The statements both on MPR and in the Session Weekly on Friday sent a shockwave through the Legacy fans. There appeared to be some wide differences between the House and Senate approaches on the clean water and culture sections of the bill. There was also the minor squabble of whether to name the council overseeing the conservation portion of the Legacy funding after Senator Lessard simply because he was still living. There were also minor concerns raised regarding the Forest Legacy appropriation of the conservation funds with respect to wetland banking.

When the conference committee first met on Friday, there appeared to be no desire on the part of the House to enter into global negotiations and only a desire to discuss their many differences. Most veteran Capitol observers were worried by these delay tactics of the House, but hoped they were simply just positioning themselves in the conference committee negotiations. Fortunately, the voters spoke at full volume last November and the legislative leaders heard that loud and clear. By Saturday offers started to move back and forth between the conference committee negotiators. By Sunday evening rumors were spread that even though there were no meetings, the majority of the issues had been worked out.

Finally, late Monday afternoon, after several delayed committee start times and with only hours left in the session, the conference committee rolled out their final proposal; not, however, without some more drama. Those representing the interests of the hunting and fishing groups had concerns with some definitions in the bill putting parameters around the constitutional language of “enhance, protect and restore.” They also expressed concerns about a couple other provisions. The final conference committee action was delayed again until early evening with the clock ticking towards a midnight adjournment. A final solution was worked out to deal with some of those minor issues in the Revisor’s bill that comes late in the session to fix mistakes. It was agreed the issues surrounding the words “enhance, protect and restore” will be examined closer by the Outdoor Heritage Council during the interim, but the language would be left in the bill.

Finally at 10:20 p.m., the conference committee report was first adopted in the House on a vote of 103 to 31. The Senate took up the conference committee report just prior to 11 o’clock and finished debate by 11:16 p.m. — less than 45 minutes from the constitutional adjournment time. The Senate gave the conference committee report a unanimous endorsement. The bill is now in the hands of the Governor who could line item veto some provisions, but has made no indications in that regard. Highlights from the bill include:

  • $151 million to the Clean Water Legacy initiatives
  • A continued commitment to test all of the state’s waters within the next 10 years
  • $36 million for Forest Legacy to preserve 187,000 acres of Upper Mississippi Forest
  • $65 million over the next biennium to support Minnesota’s state, regional, and metro parks and trails
  • Requirements to develop long-term plans to ensure the constitutional funding goes to its intended purposes
  • Renaming the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council the “Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council” (LSOHC)

The bottom line for the environment was increased investments in preserving our Great Outdoors. Despite the historic budget crisis faced by the Legislature, they honored the will of the people from the last election. There were no significant raids of environment and conservation funding in the regular omnibus finance bill. There was concern that the constitutional amendment would simply be used to backfill cuts to existing programs, but for the most part that did not happen. A closer analysis of the budgets will be made to ensure that the constitutional requirement that these new funds go to supplement and not replace traditional sources of funding is adhered to.

The general analysis from Capitol observers is that the final package of Legacy funding is a big win for our Great Outdoors. Special thanks should go to the two chairs of the conference committee for overcoming their significant differences. Rep. Murphy surely put a scare into us earlier in the negotiations, but worked diligently to make sure there was a good compromise in the end. She said on the floor at final passage that chairing this committee was the “best ride I have taken in my 33 years at the Legislature.” I believe her old friend from Duluth, Willard Munger, would have been proud. Sen. Dick Cohen (DFL-St. Paul) was the Senate chair of the conference committee. He’s widely considered the architect behind the coalition of advocates that supported the adoption of a constitutional amendment in the last election. He used all his 33 years of experience in the Legislature to patiently and persistently move towards this well-regarded compromise. This will certainly be recognized as one of his crowning achievements in a distinguished legislative career. There are many more individuals who deserve thanks, but they are too numerous to mention in this small column.

The $300 million in new projects dedicated to protect lakes, rivers and streams and Minnesota’s Great Outdoors is a major victory. It was gratifying to see the legislators using MEP’s messaging on how much Minnesotans value their Great Outdoors. Legislators deserve credit for making no real attempt to raid this newly dedicated resource, but certainly the MVP for the session are the Minnesota voters who sent a loud message in November. Thanks to you the voters, the true fans of the Great Outdoors, we had a successful session. Stay tuned next week for the final installment of these capitol updates where I will give my picks for legislative players of the game. After that I am off to enjoy some of our Great Outdoors we just invested in.

One Response to “Capitol Update for May 22, 2009”

  1. John Helland

    I’ve greatly enjoyed John Tuma’s nice sense of history and historical vignettes that add to his capitol updates. They are thoroughly enjoyable to read and I can’t imagine a better reporter to give these useful weekly posts.
    Thanks much, John, and enjoy the great outdoors – you deserve too!