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Some lawmakers push back on need for Mille Lacs special session

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Governor Dayton says he will veto education bill
Governor Mark Dayton, May 19, 2015.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file

Pressing his call for a special session, Gov. Mark Dayton planned to hold a town hall meeting Friday in Isle, Minn., to discuss the declining walleye population on Lake Mille Lacs.

Dayton says he wants to call legislators back to consider ways to help resort owners if the walleye fishing season ends early on the lake.

The Department of Natural Resources says it may have to close walleye fishing on the popular lake next week. That has prompted worry among Mille Lacs resort owners that their business will collapse.

And even though most legislators agree that the walleye situation on Mille Lacs is dire, they aren't convinced about the need for a special session.

"I think the suggestion of a special session is a little bit premature," said Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, chair of the House Mining and Outdoor Recreation Committee. The state should look at alternatives, he said, such as promoting other fishing options on the lake and catch-and-release requirements for walleye.

Hackbarth said he isn't convinced the DNR should be shutting down walleye fishing on Mille Lacs at all.

"Maybe we can get past this without closing the season, and that would take care of a lot of the economic problems that they're having in the area," he said. "How critical is it that we close it right now? Maybe we don't need to do that."

Lake Mille Lacs
The Department of Natural Resources says it may have to close walleye fishing on Mille Lacs next week.
Conrad Wilson | MPR News 2013

DNR officials have maintained that young fish aren't surviving in the lake. They say the only way to rebuild the lake's walleye population is to restrict the number of fish that can be taken from it. Instead of immediately calling a special session, Hackbarth says, a bipartisan working group should be formed to discuss options.

Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, said he doesn't think a special session should be called at all. Petersen said he sympathizes with the plight of resort owners on Mille Lacs, but it's not the role of state government and the taxpayers to rescue them.

"In terms of providing economic financial assistance, while I understand the need that many people will have, I think if you go down that road, you're probably going to induce a cattle call from a bunch of different corners in the state," he said.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk agrees a working group should be formed to discuss the walleye situation on Mille Lacs. But he also supports Dayton's call for a special session. Bakk disagrees with the notion that state government should not help area businesses. He said the Legislature helps other industries, including taconite workers on the Iron Range, farmers and turkey producers.

"We're creating less volume in business traffic, so I think we have some obligation," Bakk said. "It's kind of like if we took a road out and you can't access your business any longer. There's a process, through the Legislative Coordinating Commission, where a business can come and look for relief in those kind of situations, and they do."

Bakk said the details of public assistance have to be worked out,  but it could likely include zero-interest loans, tourism promotion and property tax relief.

Dayton, too, defended the idea of providing state help to resort owners. A recent economic survey of Mille Lacs County showed that 22 percent of the workforce is in the leisure and tourism industry. That's second only to education and health services.

Dayton said he's committed to looking at every way possible to help area businesses.

"I'm not willing to give up on either the lake or the businesses who depend upon the lake for their livelihood until we have made every effort," he said. "I intend to see that we make sure that we make every effort over the next month's time."

Dayton said the earliest he could call lawmakers back for a special session would be next week.