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After debate, 25 proposed environmental projects dropped from list headed to Legislature

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A joint legislative-citizens advisory group on environmental spending agreed Monday night to drop 25 projects from its list of recommendations headed to the Legislature. The action came after two key lawmakers warned the group the projects would never pass.  

The Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources -- the LCCMR -- advises the Legislature on how to invest proceeds from the state lottery, some of which is dedicated to the environment.

After a year of study that led to a list of more than 100 recommended projects around the state, two new members told the group Monday night that the Legislature would reject some of those projects.

"I'm sorry folks, the rules changed on Nov. 2 last fall," said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, the new chairman of the House Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Committee. "The group that compiled this list is not in control anymore. They don't have the majority in the Legislature.

"When you see a TV commercial about the lottery, they talk about a loon, and money getting on the ground and being spent on projects, and not going to studies and research."

McNamara teamed up with Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, to comb through the list of recommended projects. They presented a list of 25 projects they said wouldn't fly with the new Republican majority, and another dozen they wanted more information about. 

"The group that compiled this list is not in control anymore. They don't have the majority in the Legislature."

Many of the projects were for planning and research, including global warming research; others were for environmental education.

McNamara and Ingebrigtsen said they wanted to set aside a pot of money to deal with emerging issues, such as chronic wasting disease in deer, aquatic invasive species and the emerald ash borer.

Until a few years ago, the commission was made up only of legislators, and observers complained that decisions were based on politics and not science. 

When citizens joined the group, they designed an exhaustive review process to vet proposals thoroughly and present a ranked list to the Legislature. In recent years, the Legislature has approved the vast majority of recommended projects.

Commission members, who'd worked on the current list for a year, knew a lot about the projects on McNamara and Ingebrigtsen's chopping block. They'd studied proposals and questioned presenters.

Retired teacher Elizabeth Wilkins told McNamara he'd missed out on learning from the people who testified.

"The ones that came in were gangbusters, and if you would have heard them I don't think you'd have them on your list," Wilkins said. "But you didn't hear them, and that's the problem."

For three hours, there was an emotional give-and-take. Ingebrigtsen told members they need to face the reality and the depth of the change in the Legislature. 

"If I have to go on record and say global warming -- I think it's a farce, I think it's a fallacy," Ingebrigtsen said. "When it comes to that kind of studying, I can't be anything other than honest, I just don't buy it. And I think there's a lot of folks that don't."

That brought on a short lecture from geologist and LCCMR co-chair Jeff Broberg.

"The problem with denying global warming is, if you're wrong, it's catastrophic, and we're unprepared then," Broberg said.

In the end, commission members agreed to cut 22 proposals and to give others a chance to present their ideas again.

Ingebrigtsen said he doesn't think the episode will damage the credibility of the LCCMR.

"But it would be foolish to think that politics don't play a role," he said. "The House and Senate members that were in the majority when this bill came through were of the other party, and their priorities obviously are different than the majority party right now."

But the citizen co-chairwoman of the commission, Nancy Gibson, said the group's hard-won progress toward nonpartisanship has been compromised.

"Now that politics are in play again, as we heard tonight, what does that say to the public about where are our priorities? That's in question right now," Gibson said.

Monday night's action was not the commission's final one. The commission needs a super-majority vote to forward the entire package to the Legislature, and they did not take that vote Monday night.

The LCCMR meets again next week. McNamara and Ingebrigtsen want to have the environment budgets ready by March 22.