Capitol Update for May 15, 2009

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“When I reached the brink of the hill overlooking the surrounding country, I was struck with the picturesque beauty of the scene.”
-Henry Hastings Sibley

In late October of 1834, young Mr. Sibley, in his early 20s, reached for the first time the crest of the hill overlooking the juncture of the mighty rivers named Mississippi and Saint Peter (later to be named the Minnesota River).  The newly assigned American Fur Company partner in charge of trading at the confluence of these two great rivers was welcomed by an awe inspiring vista he would never forget.  Surely his senses were heightened in the crisp October air as he breathed in the beauty of the fall leaves blazing across the valley’s majestic panorama.  The man who would become Minnesota’s first governor never forgot the beautiful sight when he later penned the above words in his unfinished biography well into the twilight of his life.

As he described the scene in his biography, he reminisced about the elegant flow of the great rivers.  He was struck by the beautiful contour of the land which was teeming with game he would later cherish as the “Squire of Mendota,” taking his many visitors on grand hunting excursions in the surrounding wilds.  He commented on the stately “military post of Fort Snelling perched upon a high and commanding point.”

The very things that struck him as admirable about his new home still have great value to those who call Minnesota home today.  Last fall Minnesota voters passed an amendment to Minnesota’s constitution, of which Sibley was one of the original drafters, to dedicate revenue for critical investments in Minnesota’s water, wild places, state parks, culture and history.  These were the very four things that impressed him at the crest of that hill 175 years ago.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his first remembrances were of the water flowing in the great rivers, the vistas of the land he loved to hunt, and the later State Park and historical site of Fort Snelling.

This week the Minnesota Legislature is capping off their work on the first set of investments to be appropriated from the Constitutional Amendment passed last fall.  The amendment has been affectionately referred to as the Legacy Amendment.  The final work on the appropriations from the Legacy Amendment have picked up pace this week as the Legislature rushes to its constitutional adjournment date this coming Monday.  Because things are happening so fast at the Legislature, by the time you read this post it may be old news.  Therefore, here is a progress report as of Thursday evening on this historical first appropriation for the Great Outdoors portions of the Legacy Amendment.

On Friday of last week, the House passed its Omnibus Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Bill (HF1231) which appropriates the money from all four of the funds created by the Legacy Amendment. As a comparison, HF1231 departed more from the recommendations of the Clean Water Council and the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council than the Senate.  One of the major differences is that the House chose to fund the assessment and monitoring for water impairments out of the Pollution Control Agency budget by appropriating $15 million from the environment fund in the Omnibus Environment Finance Bill.  The Senate appropriates $12 million for assessment and monitoring out of the Legacy Amendment funds.  As a result, the House had more money to be creative in the water area when putting together their bill in committee.  The conference committee responsible for the Omnibus Environment Finance Bill concurred with the House position to include a $15 million appropriation for assessment and monitoring from the environment fund.  Unfortunately, Governor Pawlenty line-item vetoed the $15 million for assessment and monitoring.  Therefore, the more important issue that the conference committee will have to address is whether to spend money out of Legacy funds for monitoring and assessment.  There is still money in the environment fund the committee could use for this purpose, but it will need to be negotiated with the Governor’s office to avoid the line-item veto.

Also, the House did not spend all the available Legacy Amendment funding dedicated for the Clean Water Legacy.  They spent approximately $30 million less than the Senate.  The money is still in the account for future expenditures, but most of the environmental community felt the people of Minnesota wanted this money put to work as soon as possible cleaning up our lakes, rivers and streams.   HF1231 passed off the House floor with less of a vote margin than expected, with 78 votes in favor and 51 votes in opposition.

On Monday, May 11, the Senate processed the bills they had constructed for spending the Legacy Amendment funds.  They actually had four separate bills funding each of the Legacy Amendment categories.  They first processed the individual bills for the arts, parks and Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council recommendations.  They all passed unanimously except for two votes against the arts bill.   At first the Senate did not process SF1651, the Clean Water Legacy bill.  Instead, they waited for Rep. Murphy’s bill (HF1231) to come over from the House so the Senate could make it the companion to SF1651.  The Senate then suspended the rules in order to give HF1231 its second and third reading.  The Senate then amended all four of the provisions (arts, parks, water and Lessard Council recommendations) to HF1231 as a delete-all amendment.  They then unanimously passed HF1231 as amended.

Later on Monday evening, the Senate moved to make Sen. Richard Cohen (DFL-St. Paul) the chief author of SF1651, replacing Sen. Sandy Rummel (DFL-White Bear Lake).  This put Sen. Cohen in line for being the Senate chair of the conference committee when it was created.  It’s unusual for the finance chair to want to chair a conference committee, but Sen. Cohen was one of the chief architects of the Legacy Amendment and one of the driving forces in bringing together the coalition of sportsmen and women, environmentalists, conservationists, and arts enthusiasts that was successful in passing the amendment.

The Legacy conference committee membership was also set Monday evening with the House side being chaired by Mary Murphy (DFL – Hermantown).  The House conferees appointed were Jean Wagenius (DFL – Minneapolis), Will Morgan (DFL-Burnsville), Leon Lillie (DFL – North St. Paul) and Greg Davids (R-Preston).  The Senate conferees joining Sen. Cohen are Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul), Tom Saxhaug (DFL – Grand Rapids), Satveer Chaudhary (DFL – Fridley) and Dennis Frederickson (R-New Ulm).  The committee is made up of some strong advocates for the environment, and we are expecting some good work from the committee.

The conference committee had its first meeting Thursday afternoon and evening.  The committee’s first order of business was to review the Forest Legacy proposal, which is the marquee recommendation coming out of the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council (LOHC).  While the House and Senate fund $20 million next year for this effort to acquire development easements on forest land in the upper Mississippi River Valley, the Senate also appropriates an additional $16 million in the second year which is a slight departure from the LOHC recommendations.  There was concern expressed about the fact that the lumber company who is selling the easements is reserving the right to sell future wetland credits.  There are an estimated 60,000 acres of wetlands within the 187,000 acres being protected.  Testimony made it clear that under present Minnesota law the lumber company would not be able to sell off wetland credits to create a net loss of wetlands in Minnesota.  Organizations such as Ducks Unlimited had expressed concerns that if the lumber company retains the right to sell wetland credits, the company could possibly sell them to developers from other states, creating wetland losses on the Mississippi waterfowl flyway.

The conference committee has yet to take any solid steps towards a resolution of the differences between House and Senate bills, but with the session ending on Monday, they will have no choice but to act quickly.  Minnesota’s 39th governor certainly made clear in his press conference Thursday afternoon that this session will end on time and there will be no special session.  Therefore, if this conference committee does not act promptly, Minnesota will lose a year of investing in protection of our Great Outdoors.

Our first governor’s romantic remembrance of his first view of the Minnesota Valley was followed by a harsh winter living in a decrepit fur trading shack.  We Minnesotans learn to endure harsh winters because of our love for our Great Outdoors.  We are not afraid to sacrifice some of our hard earned dollars to protect these things we value most about this great state.  Hopefully the Legislature will endure a harsh weekend of trading as they develop what will be a precedent-setting list of investments in our Great Outdoors.  Therefore, stay tuned next week for the final conclusion on how things wrapped up in this harsh 2009 Legislative Session.

*Henry Hastings Sibley – Divided Heart, Rhonda R. Gilman, Minnesota Historical Society Press (2004) p. 45.  Citing from Blegen, ed., Unfinished Autobiography of Henry Hastings Sibley.  The quotes and visual images described in this article come from this excellent work by Rhonda R. Gilman.  I’m only halfway through the book, but it has already become one of my favorite historical reads.

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