House, Senate approve outdoors and arts program

Whitetail buck
A whitetail buck.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The money comes from a constitutional amendment voters approved last fall which will raise the sales tax by 3/8 percent for 25 years. The tax is expected to raise more than $230 million in the next year.

It's the only significant amount of new money moving around at the Capitol this year, and goes to dozens of projects around the state.

The biggest single chunk of money in the measure is $36 million to ensure access for hunting, hiking and public recreation on land owned by the UPM Blandin paper company near Grand Rapids.

Tom Duffus is the Upper Midwest Director for the Conservation Fund, and helped negotiate the deal.

"The Upper Mississippi Forest Project is the largest private land conservation project in Minnesota history, 187,277 acres for a working forest conservation easement that will provide permanent public access for outdoor recreation forever," said Duffus.

The deal would allow Blandin to continue harvesting trees from the forest for papermaking.

The bill also funds smaller projects for the arts, parks and sewage treatment efforts to clean groundwater.

More than $2 million will fund preservation of Native languages in the state. Jennifer Bendickson, a Dakota Language educator in Minneapolis, says Native American language needs the help.

"It's in extreme crisis. For the Dakota it's really extreme. We have maybe 10 speakers left here in Minnesota, of the language. Ojibway is a little bit better, but their speakers are declining fast, too," said Bendickson. "And we don't have young people growing up speaking the language, so this is really going to help."

Other spending would help fight the spread of the emerald ash borer beetle, fund public radio and TV, and shore up library and zoo programs.

The House approved the bill on a 104-31 vote, and the Senate followed later in the evening with a unanimous 67-0 vote.

But lawmakers were scuffling over the money for the outdoors, practically until the closing minutes of the five-month legislative session.

The tax plan was a shotgun marriage from the start, pairing hunters and anglers on the one hand and environmentalists on the other. Each wound up with about $78 million a year in the end.

But the law is ambiguous about its ultimate purpose. It calls for the state to preserve, restore and enhance wild lands.

Environmentalists say that's a good thing in its own right. They pushed for the money to fund preservation of native species and biodiversity.

But hunters and anglers say the money is ultimately meant to improve recreation opportunities for Minnesotans, particularly for hunting and fishing.

Retired state Sen. Bob Lessard was a driving force for the sales tax and the constitutional amendment setting out what the money is for. The committee that hands out the outdoors money is named after him in part.

"That money that goes in any wetlands, habitat -- whatever the case may be -- the end aim, the end goal, is for fish, game and wildlife," said Lessard, adding that the final bill doesn't accomplish that goal.

"No. It does not do that. It's not definitive enough," he said.

But some House members, like Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, say voters approved spending the money on more than just fish, game and wildlife.

"I think when Minnesotans voted for it, they wanted us to protect forests, they wanted us to protect prairie, and they wanted us to protect wetlands," said Wagenius. "And I think that's the plain reading of the Constitution."

For her part, Wagenius and fellow House members made compromises, as well. She says they lost out on their effort to add other strings to the money, particularly following up on wild land restoration projects.

"We put a lot more emphasis on transparency and accountability. And we had restoration audits, and you don't see restoration audits in the bill right now. They will come," Wagenius said.

Lawmakers continued to tinker with the compromise, even on the floor of the Senate in the final minutes of the session.

But supporters said that whatever its flaws, it was a good start for what will ultimately be billions of dollars in conservation funding.

The 3/8 cent sales tax increase goes into effect on July 1.