Spending the Lessard Amendment money: What the legislature did

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The majority of state voters approved a sales tax increase in November 2008 with some uncertainty as to how the anticipated revenue would be spent.

A new law provides the answer.

“This is the best ride I’ve had in 33 years at the Legislature. This is the people of Minnesota’s (law),” said Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown), who sponsors the omnibus cultural and outdoor funding resources finance law with Sen. Richard Cohen (DFL-St. Paul).

Yet it almost did not happen.

After making the motion to pass the conference committee report in the session’s final hours, the committee recessed abruptly with no clear explanation before voting. About an hour later, conferees reconvened and Murphy explained that three concerns were brought to her attention that were to be corrected in the so-called “revisor’s bill” because there was no time to make the necessary changes in this bill. The concerns were:

• criteria for how grants are appropriated regarding emerald ash borer;

• the conservation partner grant program will not be a pilot program, and will be reviewed at the end of the first year; and

• the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council, which was established to provide annual recommendations to the Legislature on how the funds should be used, can use its definition of “protect, restore and enhance,” because it differs from the conference committee report. Murphy said these definitions would be discussed in the interim.

Beginning July 1, 2009, the state’s sales tax will increase from 6.5 percent to 6.875 percent. The tax is expected to generate $396.8 million annually to be divided into four dedicated funding areas: wildlife habitat, clean water, parks and trails, and arts and culture.

Funding in the law for the 2010-2011 biennium includes:

• $75.7 million to the Department of Natural Resources split among prairies; wetlands; forests; and fish, game and wildlife habitat;

• $51.3 million to the Pollution Control Agency for grants, drinking water protection, Minnesota river water quality testing and wastewater treatment monitoring;

• $36.9 million to the DNR for grants and the state parks and trails legacy;

• $32.7 million to the Public Facilities Authority for grants among small community wastewater treatment technical assistance and construction and phosphorus reduction; and

• $22 million to the Minnesota Historical Society for a variety of things including grants and assistance to local historical societies.

Line-item vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty was $200,000 to the Star Lake Board for a “pilot program to focus on engaging citizen participation and fostering local partnerships by increasing citizen involvement in water quality enhancement by designating star lakes and rivers.”

“This board was created with a $100,000 appropriation as a pilot program last year. At the time, supporters of the legislation indicated the need was for one-time money only,” Pawlenty wrote in his veto message. “If additional funding is needed for this new board, it should come from sources other than constitutionally dedicated dollars. Such dollars should be used for projects, not process and bureaucracy.”

The law is the result of weeks of testimony about the potential monetary impact during the next 25 years especially in the face of an economic downturn, Murphy said. It also provides a plan to guide the distribution of the legacy amendment money over the 25-year life of the tax. All appropriations are one-time, thus agencies should not expect to receive the same amount of funding from the tax every year. Priorities will be reviewed on a year-to-year basis.

“We looked at this as a tremendous fiscal responsibility,” Murphy said. “We did not want to make a mistake. It certainly would be better if we’d had more time.”

Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) acknowledged Murphy’s task was “monumental.”

“You were looking to the future and trying to do it right,” he said. “I know it was a hard job and tweaks will come in the future.”

Murphy said that there had not been a lot of communication between the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council and legislative committees, which is why there were some things that still need to be worked out. “We need a lot more communication so we create better understanding and a better environment for the future,” she said. “This is the promise to the future on enhancement, protection and restoring of our habitats. This is the promise of the future for arts and culture and having whole new groups of people exposed to arts and culture.”

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