Capitol Update for April 3, 2009

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“No mortal man could have surmised what was afterward learned, but the Confederate Naval officers intended to destroy the Minnesota…”
– Confederate Military History, volume 12 

As the morning dawned on March 9, 1862, the first Navy ship to be honored with the name “Minnesota” seemed to be doomed to total annihilation.  The Minnesota was built only five years earlier as a steam frigate, a sailboat with steam engines.  It carried 43 guns and a crew of 600 men.  On the previous day the Minnesota, along with its fellow Union battleships Cumberland and Congress, had the misfortune of meeting the newly designed Confederate Ironside battleship, the Virginia, on its maiden voyage.  Originally known as the Merrimac, the Virginia was a large wooden gunboat retrofitted with 4-inch iron plates and powered by steam engines.  The ships engaged in a fierce battle at a point where the James River enters the Chesapeake Bay, known as Hampton Roads.  In the battle, the frigate Congress was totally destroyed and the Cumberland was badly damaged as it escaped.  As night fell on the Hampton Roads, the Minnesota ran aground trying to evade the cumbersome Confederate gunboat and was only saved because of nightfall.

In the morning the Confederate Ironside set out with the intent of destroying the Minnesota, which was still stuck fast in the mud.  As the behemoth Ironside gunboat riding low in the water drew near to the Minnesota, the Confederate sailors noticed a small little craft that looked like a “cheese box.”  It was the Union Monitor, itself an iron plated vessel that worked hard over night to reach the battle.  It was only a third of the size of the Virginia and had only two specially designed guns that provided rapid fire from a pivoting turret.  The two vessels pounded each other for three hours without much damage to either ship.  The slower Virginia finally withdrew from the engagement, giving the Minnesota time to escape.

The crew of the Minnesota was certainly thankful for the little cheese box, but they probably didn’t know they were watching an historical change in naval warfare as the first two Ironside ships engaged in the battle against one another.  The namesake of our state went on to have a long history of service within the U.S. Navy until it was decommissioned in 1901.  The two Ironsides in the engagement didn’t share such a long career as both were destroyed by mishaps within a few months.

The primary task for the 2009 Legislature is the development of a balanced state budget.  As reported earlier, this Legislature is in the midst of an historic budget battle as they face the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression.  Unfortunately, in past budget crises’ the funding for the Great Outdoors has taken huge losses.  For the first time in history, like the vessel Minnesota, we have our own little ironclad protector coming to our rescue.  Our persistent and previously unknown defender is the new constitutional amendment.  The provision of the amendment specifically states the new funds from the sales tax must supplement and not replace traditional funding.  Confounding the traditional efforts of slashing the Great Outdoors budget during a crisis, for the first time in history we are in the position to safely navigate a huge budget battle.

The Legislature is entering a new phase where they begin to develop their final budget packages after weeks of preliminary hearings.  The legislative funding packages are just starting to be assembled.  Here are some of the highlights of our position upon entering this budget debate.

The coalitions that helped pass the Legacy Amendment have shown they are still focused on implementing these meaningful investments.  The Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council, created last year, was given the responsibility of recommending appropriations regarding the conservation portions of the new revenue.  Many observers did not think the new council could assemble a meaningful set of recommendations in time to impact the legislative process.  Fortunately the Council rose to the occasion by establishing a set of solid recommendations to invest nearly $69 million.  These recommendations include improving and protecting 342 miles of lakeshore, purchasing over 8,700 acres of critical habitat land, acquiring 200,000 acres of permanent conservation easements, and restoring or enhancing 21,000 acres of existing habitats.  The marquis proposal of their recommendation is a $20 million investment in acquiring forest easements in the upper Mississippi River area near Grand Rapids.

The Clean Water Legacy portion of the new constitutionally dedicated revenue did not have a formal process similar to the Lessard Council.  The original Clean Water Legacy Act did create a council two years ago, but did not give it specific authority to make recommendations to the Legislature.  Nonetheless, the Clean Water Legacy Council did put together a set of recommendations that would inject $46 million into important sewage treatment projects, invest $7 million in protection of drinking water sources, and put $56 million dollars into reducing pollution runoffs into our lakes and streams.  The original coalition of environmental organizations, business interests, farm groups, and local units of government, affectionately known as the “G-16.” came together over the last two weeks specifically endorsing the Clean Water Legacy Council funding framework.  The G-16 has put their proposal together into a bill authored by Senator Dennis Fredrickson (R-New Ulm) SF1913 and Representative Kent Eken (DFL-Twin Valley) HF2128.  It is the hope of the environment community that the Legislature adopts these proposals, which are focused on solid scientifically-based programming as opposed to simply earmarking funds for local projects.

Even though the Legislature typically does their major bonding bill in the even numbered years of the legislative session, they are putting together a smaller set of capital investment proposals under the guise of economic stimulus.  The Senate is proposing a $267 million capital investment bill.  Part of that package is $8.45 million for the Central Corridor Transitway.  They also provide $29 million to the DNR, most of which is focused on flood hazard mitigation grants.  They also provide $25 million to the Pollution Control Agency for closed landfill cleanup.  The House is proposing a slightly smaller bonding bill at $247.6 million.  They recommend $13.7 million to the DNR, most of which also goes to fund mitigation.  The House proposes $1 million to the Board of Water and Soil Resources for RIM Conservation Reserve Easements.

The details of all of the conservation, environment, and Great Outdoors funding will start to take shape as each of the funding committees are required to have their bills wrapped up by April 16th.  After that, the Legislature will move into its final phase of negotiations with the Governor’s office and developing its final conference committee compromises.

Another piece of news from the Capitol has been an unexpected skirmish developing around the Building Sensible Communities initiative, which is part of MEP’s collaborative agenda.  The legislation has experienced pretty smooth sailing through several committees in both the House and the Senate.  The last policy committee that the chief author in the House, Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls.), had to bring the legislation through was the committee he chairs, the Transportation and Transit Policy and Oversight Division.  Because he is a very respected and liked chairman, no one expected much opposition in the committee.  It was apparent that the Republicans on the committee were getting strong encouragement from somewhere to start aggressively opposing the legislation.  As a result, the Republicans called for a roll call vote and the bill passed for the first time with a partisan divide.  This was extremely disappointing, and we hope will not taint the success of the legislation as we move into final negotiations with the Governor’s office and the Metropolitan Council.

The Green Team will continue to work diligently on preserving the strong commitment to investments in our Great Outdoors.  Like the crew of the Minnesota, we are very thankful for the ironclad amendment to our constitution that the voters have given us to work with.  We’ll keep you informed as the battle ensues.

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