Sportsmen, outdoors council: Legacy bill sets bad precedent

The Nature Conservancy and nearly two dozen other habitat and sportsmen's groups are asking Gov. Mark Dayton to veto part of the Legacy bill after lawmakers added projects that weren't recommended by the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

The bill lawmakers passed Monday includes $6.3 million for habitat restoration for regional parks in the Twin Cities metro area and $3 million for grants to help fight aquatic invasive species. The council looked at a similar proposal for metro parks and gave the project low marks. The invasive species project was never presented to the council.

The Legislature created the council to vet proposals and send recommendations to lawmakers, who have the final say on what gets funded. The Legislature has usually adopted the council's recommendations.

David Hartwell, chairman of the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, said funding the metro parks and invasive species projects sets a bad precedent.

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"I completely understand that the Legislature has the final say in this money, but this should be something that is allocated based on a process, a demonstrated need, a good use of taxpayer dollars, and not based on a lobbying effort, not based on a 'please put it in my backyard' type of mentality," he said.

Minnesota's Legacy Amendment was approved by voters in 2008 to establish a three-eighths cent sales tax to raise money for the outdoors, clean water, the arts and parks and trails. The outdoors and clean water funds each get a third of the funding, with 19.75 percent going to arts and culture and 14.25 percent going to parks and trails.

Metro area parks have complained about the small percentage of outdoors money being spent in the metro area. While the outdoors money is set aside for habitat projects and not parks, House Legacy Chairwoman Rep. Phyllis Kahn argued that there are pieces of land in the metro area that are good candidates for habitat restoration and that they happen to be located in parks.

Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, also had wanted metro parks to receive 43 percent of the parks portion of the Legacy money, but a commission the Legislature created to come up with a plan to distribute the money recommended that 80 percent of the parks money be evenly split between metro parks and the state park system.

The $6.3 million for metro parks included in the outdoors portion of the bill was part of a compromise that allowed the conference committee to reach an agreement, said Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL- St. Paul, who chaired the Senate Legacy Committee. Lawmakers adopted the commission's recommendations on how parks money should be distributed.

"I don't understand the opposition to [the outdoors portion of the Legacy bill]," Kahn told lawmakers as the House debated the bill on Monday. "It does exactly everything that they asked us to do."

Every project recommended by the council received funding in the Legacy bill. Only one project, the Reinvest in Minnesota Wetlands Reserve Program Partnership, received less funding than what the council recommended.

It isn't the first time the Legislature has added outdoors projects not endorsed by the council. Lawmakers added funding for emerald ash borer mitigation in the first year of the Legacy Amendment. Two years ago lawmakers added money to a project to fight invasive carp that the council had already approved. But Hartwell said this year's actions are different.

"This is a bigger deal," he said.

In a letter (posted below) sent to Dayton Monday evening, the sportsmen's groups said when Dayton campaigned for governor in 2009, he promised to veto any outdoors projects "that usurped the authority of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council by funding projects that did not go through the Council or cheated the process."

Dayton's spokeswoman said the governor is still reviewing the bill.