Minnesotans to vote in 2024 on environment’s share of lottery dollars

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

In MEP’s recent 2023 legislative wrap-up, we covered many of the tremendous victories the environmental community won at the Capitol this year, from clean energy investments to replacing lead drinking water pipes – visible steps that are already in motion. But one of our most important – and most challenging – wins this session will bear its fruit on November 5th, 2024. On that Election Day, Minnesotans will vote on renewing the 40% share of proceeds from the state lottery that goes to our environment and natural resources.

There’s a good reason that the Minnesota Lottery has a loon for its logo. The lottery was authorized by a constitutional amendment alongside a related amendment that created the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF). The Constitution currently guarantees that 40% of proceeds from the lottery go to that Trust Fund, which uses the dollars and investment income for a wide variety of projects that protect and restore Minnesota’s resources. 

Over the Trust Fund’s existence, it’s invested $700 million in these projects and benefited every corner of the state. From climate change research to trout stream protection, from reforestation to protecting bats from white nose disease, the ENRTF supports numerous jobs and makes Minnesota a healthier place to live for people and wildlife alike.

The Trust Fund process

Each year, project proposers that include universities, governments, and nonprofit organizations bring ideas to the Legislative-Citizens’ Council on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). After extensive hearings, the LCCMR selects projects it deems appropriate for ENRTF funding and recommends them to the Legislature. The Legislature then (usually) passes ENRTF funding for those projects into law.

The ENRTF itself is widely supported – when an amendment to guarantee its share of lottery dollars through 2025 was on the ballot in 1998, it garnered a whopping 77% of votes in favor. But the process for selecting projects is not without controversy.

In 2018, the Legislature bypassed the LCCMR and passed a bill to spend Trust Fund dollars to pay for wastewater infrastructure bonds – an important environmental issue, but one that’s meant to be the basic function of government, not a project for the ENRTF. This raid would have set a bad precedent, and the financial maneuvering it entailed opened up the possibility that the ENRTF could be drained dry. MEP and several allied organizations took the highly unusual step of suing the state to block the bonds from being sold, and ultimately the Legislature reversed the raid.

MEP generally supports the work of the LCCMR, which helps ensure that the ENRTF funds worthy environmental projects. But that’s not to say that we think the process is perfect: it’s long, complicated, and challenging for small community groups to gain access. Some project proposers even hire lobbyists to make their case for funding to the Legislature, a practice certainly beyond the power and financial resources of small organizations.

Why it mattered this year

As mentioned above, the ENRTF is only constitutionally guaranteed its 40% share of the lottery proceeds until 2025. Although this dedication is also in statute, a future Legislature could go even further than it did in 2018, repeal the statute, and start siphoning away lottery dollars.

MEP and our allies have been preparing for years to address the 2025 expiration date and extend it to 2050. We’ve been confident that if we could make the case for the ENRTF to Minnesotans once again, they’d vote in favor of extending its funding. But that could only happen if it is on the ballot, and if our community had the time necessary to campaign for renewal.

That’s the reason that we pushed hard to make sure that the 2023 session put the ENRTF vote on the 2024 ballot, rather than kicking the can to the next session. But our goal wasn’t just renewal: we sought to extend the trust fund’s reach by providing it with 50% of lottery proceeds and all lottery prizes that go unclaimed.

We also sought to enhance the number and diversity of those able to access ENRTF dollars by adding an avenue for small community organizations to gain access. MEP organizations collaborated with allies and community partners, especially from environmental justice organizations, on imagining what this grants program could look like and how it could benefit those on the frontlines of pollution. Crucially, we sought for the program to be independent of the LCCMR process to make it easier and be less politically sensitive for groups to benefit from it.

A last-minute victory

HF 1900 put ENRTF renewal on the ballot with increased funding and included the creation of a community grants program, propelled by strong authors in the legislature. But getting it passed was far from a slam dunk. Some legislators disagreed with increasing the fund’s lottery share, as those proceeds otherwise go to the state’s general fund and can be used for other priorities. Others disagreed with the community grants program bypassing the LCCMR.

Even up until the weekend before the session ended, passage of HF 1900 was in doubt. But MEP participated in last minute talks with Legislators about getting it done, and in the end, while we made some sacrifices, the bill crossed the finish line and was signed by Governor Walz.

Unfortunately, the ballot measure Minnesotans we will see in 2024 won’t include increased funding for the ENRTF. But it will include a constitutional ban on using the Trust Fund for wastewater infrastructure, helping to prevent future raids like the one that happened in 2018.

Even better, HF 1900 did create a new community grants program along the lines we supported, contingent on the ballot measure passing in 2024. This program will be administered by the Minnesota DNR and overseen by an advisory council including community members of color and Indigenous Minnesotans with expertise in local environmental issues.

This community grants program will support community-based projects with a priority to respond to environment degradation and​ related health concerns of those historically overburdened by pollution.

While the program will receive a relatively small portion of ENRTF dollars, it will strengthen the ENRTF’s effectiveness by supporting numerous community projects with direct, immediate impacts that benefit  Minnesota’s environment and the health of Minnesotans. These projects could include parks & trails, greenspace, restoration (including shoreland protection and water storage), environmental justice and health, improved access to healthy foods, air and water quality protection, pollution prevention, heat island mitigation, community-based climate change prevention and preparation, and protecting and restoring habitat among others.

MEP will stay actively engaged for the rest of this year and in 2024 making sure that Minnesotans support the ENRTF just as they have in each election before. In the meantime, we encourage our subscribers to start dreaming of new environmental projects to protect people and wildlife in your communities. In 2025, we hope to have an ENRTF that truly belongs to the people of Minnesota to support you.

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.

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