Dayton officials seek up to $20 million for Mille Lacs

Don Pereira, Senior Fish Biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, testified before a working group studying the walleye problem on Lake Mille Lacs. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr (left) looks on. Tom Scheck | MPR News

Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration is seeking a financial package worth as much as $20 million to help resort owners affected by the state’s decision to close walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs.

As a preliminary step, a legislative working group met Tuesday to discuss the Department of Natural Resources’ decision to end the walleye season Monday night.

Dayton's commissioners also outlined several alternatives including low interest loans, unemployment assistance, property tax breaks and increased marketing to let visitors know that Mille Lacs has more to offer than walleye.

Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben suggested one option is giving zero interest loans to resort owners that operate within 15 miles of the lake.

“There [are] 112 tourism and hospitality related businesses within that 15 mile radius,” she said. “If we, as one example, offered zero percent interest loans up to $100,000, it could roughly be a $10 million package.”

Several lawmakers expressed reluctance about a special session, as Dayton has said he wants to approve the aid. Working group co-chair Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, said at the outset he was not in favor of calling the legislature back.

"Hopefully we can come together and work out some solutions without having a special session. That's what I would like to see,” Hackbarth said.

The other co-chair of the working group, Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, asked whether Minnesota Management and Budget could authorize financial assistance without legislative approval.

“We respect the authority that the Legislature gives us,” MMB Commissioner Myron Frans said. “The Legislature doesn’t give us a lot of authority to spend money without direct appropriations.”

Lawmakers on the working group spent most of the afternoon session asking sharp questions of Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr and state fisheries chief Don Pereira. Several asked why the DNR had to close Mille Lacs now to walleye fishing rather than keep it open for the remaining month of the summer season. They also wanted to know why the DNR took the step this year when fish drop-off appeared to be as dramatic in past years.

They also asked whether stocking the lake with walleye is being considered.

“It would be nice if we never need [stocking] in Mille Lacs," said Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitken. "We really need to be looking and hedging out bets here long-term."

Natural Resources officials told legislators they are looking at options to stock the lake quickly, if needed. They also said they’re studying the cormorant population on the lake to see if the birds are taking young walleyes.

Commissioner Landwehr said there are no simple solutions to fix the walleye shortage on Mille Lacs. He said the problems with the walleye population have been occurring for several years.

“It has often felt like a slow moving accident,” Landwehr said. “But this year it really came to a head when we exceeded the quota.”

The working group is scheduled to meet again Wednesday.

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