An advisory group that evaluates proposals for projects to fund with lottery money has defied the request of two key legislators to drop some of its recommendations.
The LCCMR -- the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources -- decided to stick with the package it approved in December, even though the legislature is expected to make major changes.
The LCCMR is made up of seven citizens with expertise in natural resources, and ten legislators. The group spent nearly a year reviewing proposals, evaluating them, and deciding on 91 projects to recommend to the legislature, which has the final say.
But since the November election, Republicans are in control at the Legislature, and the new chairmen of the House and Senate environment committees say there are new priorities. Three weeks ago the two chairmen presented the group with a list of 25 projects they said had no chance of passing this year. Many were research efforts; others addressed global warming and environmental education.
Monday night, Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, chair of the House Environment Committee, handed out a new list that represented a compromise. It would drop 27 projects and add five new ones -- all in a category he calls "emerging issues."
“And what we saw tonight, in fact Rep. McNamara said it, is that we went back to the politics. And it's broken the trust.”Sen. Linda Higgins, D-Minneapolis
"Many of these are proposed by the Governor to be funded by general funds by his tax-increasing budget; we propose these emerging issues be funded through LCCMR," McNamara said.
The emerging issues McNamara wants to address include chronic wasting disease in deer, aquatic invasive species, and the Coon Rapids dam. The dam is owned by the Three Rivers Park District, which wants state money to repair it. Citizen member Norm Moody said he can't support that or others on the legislators' new list.
"They didn't take care of it; now they want somebody else to take care of it," McNamara said.
McNamara cited invasive species and chronic wasting disease as "bad items" that are not going away. And he said they're a waste of taxpayers' money.
Citizen member Elizabeth Wilkens was unhappy about dropping environmental education projects. She chided the committee chairs for not thinking of the future.
"That's one of the reasons I've always thought education was the key. Obviously you don't," Wilkens said. "Because I know that 25 years from now most of you will be retired or dead. And who will take your place? The people that you didn't put any money into."
Others called the new projects "earmarks" and "boondoggles."
In the end, citizen members and Democrats had enough votes to prevent any changes to the package they'd agreed on in December. Still, they recognize that the legislature could well alter the final list even more dramatically.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chair of the Senate Environment Committee, heard the criticism but said the changes were necessary.
"I'm sorry you're making it sound like we're gutting the whole thing; we're talking about 20 percent or less," Ingebrigtsen said. "We've, I think, been quite patient here in respect to the amount of work that's been done, and telling you that we have to move forward here with these issues, there's a lot of good work that's going to go on here that I think the biggest share of us all agree on."
There's still a lot of disagreement about the process, though. After the meeting, Sen. Linda Higgins, D-Minneapolis, remembered back to 2006, when the citizen members were added to what was then a purely legislative body.
"Gov. Pawlenty and the Republicans said the reason to do that was to take the politics out of this commission," Higgins said. "And what we saw tonight, in fact Rep. McNamara said it, is that we went back to the politics. And it's broken the trust."
The House Environment Committee will consider a bill to approve the projects today and Wednesday.