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Minn. lawmakers cut environmental programs

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Lake Superior
Lake Superior in Gooseberry Falls State Park. The Minnesota DNR said it may have to close as many as 10 state parks under a budget bill passed Tuesday by the Republican-led House and Senate.
MPR Photo/Nate Minor

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources  says it would have to close between five and 10  state parks, and offer reduced services at others, under budgets passed by the Minnesota House and Senate Tuesday. 

It's the latest twist in the fiscal tension between the Dayton administration and the Legislature. 

The Senate approved its measure by a vote of 37-28, and the House version passed 72-57. The DNR says the House bill would reduce its general fund budget by 19 percent, the Senate bill by 15 percent. 

But Republicans focused on the overall budget of the DNR, including revenue from fees and licenses. 

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, says the DNR will experience a real cut of only 2 percent. And he says the DNR is using scare tactics when it talks about closing state parks.

"'You're cutting us 2 percent. We can't handle that, we're state government. Two-percent cut, close 20 percent of the parks, that'll scare the daylights out of them,'" said McNamara.   

After the DNR released a long list of proposed cuts including the closing of up to 10 parks, the House amended the budget bill to prohibit the DNR from closing any parks for the next two years. 

Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said that was an attempt to deny reality.

"You are responsible, with the budget you put together, for the closure of state parks in Minnesota," said Thissen.  "You like to talk tough, party of personal responsibility, at least take responsibility for consequences of budget you're putting forth." 

But Republicans accused Democrats of wanting to do things the same old way in a new economic universe. Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, said overall, state government has been growing too much.

"If the money comes out of my left pocket or my right pocket, it's still comes out of my pocket. If it comes out of a general fund tax or a dedicated tax, license or fee, it still comes out of our pockets," said Buesgens.   

Republicans attached several policy issues to the environment budget bills. They include a two-year moratorium on new rules governing water quality; an exemption from the mandatory review category for ethanol plants that want to expand; and a mandate for the DNR to sell the state's two tree nurseries. 

They're a small part of the budget, but the tree nurseries represented something larger to Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. Bonoff said there are no prospective buyers and the sale may not yield the windfall written in the budget bill.

"Isn't it inappropriate to have things on books like that that are more of a wish than anything else?" she asked. "Isn't that an inauthentic way to do our accounting and take care of our financial issues?"

Some policy language was removed from the House bill. Republicans dropped a provision that would have required the DNR to permit logging of black walnut trees in Frontenac and Whitewater State Parks. Environmental advocates criticized that idea bitterly in committee hearings.

Another proposal that's fallen by the wayside would have designated lands bought with lottery money as recreation areas, instead of scientific and natural areas. Environment committee vice chair Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-St. James, said he learned that it's more expensive to manage a recreation area than a scientific area.

Also gone is a plan to remove a state law that requires the DNR to manage school trust fund land "with sound natural resource conservation and management principles." It's part of a larger effort to revise management of school trust lands.

There are slight differences between the House and Senate budgets, so they'll go to conference committee. Some observers think negotiators will try to get closer to a measure the governor could sign.