The House voted 104-26 to remove the responsibility of overseeing school trust lands from the Department of Natural Resources, which critics say it has mismanaged.
When it became a state, Minnesota received the lands from the federal government, with the requirement of using, selling or leasing the land to fund education.
Rep. Tim O’Driscoll (R-Sartell) sponsors HF2244, which would transfer management to a Permanent School Fund Board of five members appointed by the governor. They would be advised by a bipartisan Permanent School Fund Commission made of state lawmakers, who would also review legislation affecting the lands.
Proponents of the bill say the DNR cannot manage the land effectively because the department’s purpose is to facilitate land conservation, not raise money for education. With proper management, supporters of the bill say schools could receive millions of dollars.
Rep. Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin), who has advocated for school trust land reform for years, called on legislators to remove the DNR as the land’s primary manager..
“I will fight every day of my life, which I have for the past five years, to make sure that every child in this state knows that they are the recipient of a trust fund in this state given to them by the founding fathers of this country,” Dittrich said.
The DNR opposes the proposed change, expressing concern that it overextends legislative responsibility. Several lawmakers echoed that concern, questioning whether unintended consequences could outweigh the benefits of passing the bill.
Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls) spoke in support of an amendment successfully introduced by Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) that would facilitate a reimbursement agreement with the federal government for trust lands located within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which is protected land. However, she expressed concern that the bill could violate the state constitution and harm education funding.
Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia), while a cosponsor of the bill, also voiced concern. He unsuccessfully offered an amendment that would make changes to the Permanent School Fund Board.
“My experience is that putting citizens on boards around here is that we abdicate our responsibility as legislators to manage the money,” he said. Rukavina explained that, while he supported the bill, he was concerned O’Driscoll was “taking it into the weeds.”