Legislature poised to let Minnesotans renew environmental trust fund

Posted by .

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

It may be favoritism to claim that Minnesota is one of the nations’ greatest “outdoor states,” but with respect to Colorado, Washington, and Maine, we’re definitely a contender for the top spot. From the Boundary Waters wilderness to the highly-ranked park systems in the Twin Cities, our public lands are a vital part of our culture. Just about all of us get outside in one way or another, whether it’s hiking, biking, camping, hunting, or fishing. And that means that just about all of us have benefited from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF), a Minnesota idea that’s paid off many times over for our Great Outdoors.

The ENRTF was created in 1988 after a whopping 81% of Minnesotans voted for a constitutional amendment establishing the fund along with its source of income, the Minnesota Lottery. The idea behind its creation was to have a stable, long-term source of funding to invest in the air, waters, lands, and wildlife that define our state.

Since then, the ENRTF has put more than $700 million of Lottery and investment income into hundreds of environmental projects across the state. These dollars go through state agencies, local municipalities, universities, and organizations, supporting a wide variety of jobs in research, restoration, and recreation. It funds reforestation in the Northwoods and fish protection in the Driftless. It supports air pollution studies in the Twin Cities to solar panels on our western farms. The list goes on and on.

Minnesotans don’t need to play the lottery to benefit from this constitutional amendment, and it shows. In 1998, voters were asked to approve continued lottery funding for the ENRTF. In a year when Minnesotans split three ways on their choice for Governor (giving a 37% plurality to Jesse Ventura), they approved the ENRTF amendment in yet another landslide.

That amendment came with an expiration date, however. The Trust Fund is only guaranteed its share (currently 40%) of the Lottery funds by the state constitution until 2025. That means that a future Legislature could change where the lottery money goes, potentially siphoning it away to other projects and leaving our great outdoors with less than its due.

That’s why MEP and our allies hope that this year, the Legislature will put the ENRTF on the ballot once again, giving Minnesotans the chance to renew and enhance one of our best ideas.

Keeping the trust

Whenever we discuss the Trust Fund, it’s worth remembering the intent behind it: to be a special, additional source of funding for our natural resources in addition to normal government operations. Minnesotans put it in our constitution because our Great Outdoors is a priority to us. It goes above and beyond geography and political fault lines.

One story illustrates what can happen when that idea is challenged. At the tail end of the 2018 session, the Legislature passed a budget bill that would have taken around $164 million from the Trust Fund to pay off bonds for wastewater infrastructure. 

MEP isn’t opposed to water infrastructure bonding in general – we successfully lobbied for more than $300 billion of it in 2020. But that’s what ordinary, general obligation bonds are for. The ENRTF wasn’t built to fulfill government’s basic duties. These bonds were both more expensive than the bonds the state usually issues and funded from the wrong place. If they’d gone forward, those bonds would have drained the ENRTF, edged out numerous projects for our outdoor spaces, and put the long-term benefit of the Trust Fund in jeopardy.

The environmental community couldn’t let this raid stand. For the first time in our history, MEP participated in a multi-organization lawsuit against the state to halt the sale of these bonds, arguing that the raid betrayed the public trust. Fortunately, our efforts paid off, and the Legislature fixed their misguided action. The ENRTF was safe, and a harmful precedent was reversed.

Looking forward

Despite that brief conflict, the ENRTF remains largely uncontroversial, both a potent source of funding for our outdoors and a monument to bipartisan cooperation. But today, Minnesotans need to reauthorize it. In the process, we hope to make it stronger.

Senator Foung Hawj and Representative Athena Hollins have introduced a bill, SF 2404/HF 1900, that would put the constitutional amendment to voters once again on the 2024 general election ballot. This time, however, it would come with more funding – the share of lottery proceeds going to the ENRTF would rise from 40% to 50%, in addition to lottery prizes that aren’t claimed within a year that are currently deposited in the state’s general fund

The bill would also explicitly prevent the ENRTF from being used for paying for infrastructure bonds or for wastewater systems. Minnesota has plenty of financial resources to draw on for those kinds of needs without digging into money Minnesotans have set aside for our Great Outdoors.

MEP and our allies think the time is ripe for this bill to pass. This Legislature has shown willingness to pass pro-outdoors legislation, and the ENRTF is about as popular as they come. We’ll keep working at the Capitol to get this renewal on the ballot, and we look forward to getting out the vote for our land, air, water, and wildlife in 2024.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Comments are closed.