A coalition of organizations, including Conservation Minnesota, sponsored a forum of stakeholders involved in advocating for and implementing the programs around the Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment on Thursday, January 5. This forum gave stakeholders a chance to hear from key policymakers and other colleagues on the progress of the Amendment. This forum has been held in the past to help inform stakeholders just prior to legislative session. This year’s forum was by far the largest turnout of any past forum with well over 300 attendees.
There was discussion regarding two issues that Conservation Minnesota has advocated in the past: the requirement that funds be used to supplement the traditional sources of funding and the use of citizen driven councils to make recommendations regarding investments from the Amendment funds.
First, under the state constitution these new funds were meant to create additional investments above the traditional commitments the state has made towards conservation efforts. Conservation Minnesota has been one of the leading watchdog organizations to ensure that the legislature honors the intent of the voters to create additional investments to protect our lakes, rivers, wildlife habitat and parks. As an organization that does not receive any of these Legacy dollars, we recognize one of our chief duties is to be the aggressive watchdog. Many of the other conservation organizations depend on this legislative funding for specific projects. Therefore, they the have to be measured in their positions.
Conservation Minnesota has been closely tracking the appropriations to some of our key conservation agencies for the last decade. This last session saw an unprecedented disproportional assault on the general fund commitment to the great outdoors. The overall budget solution resulted in $2.112 billion in permanent or one time spending cuts, a 5.4% cut. The cuts to the five primary conservation agencies, however, were far deeper averaging 16.5% in cuts. The Pollution Control Agency alone received a 40% reduction in their general fund appropriation.
Further, there is a misconception that with the new Legacy funds the investments in conservation are at an all-time high compared to previous years. The reality is with the addition of Legacy funds beginning in FY 2010, the percentage of total state spending used for conservation and water cleanup began to return to previous levels that existed back a decade ago. In 2010 the overall spending from all funding sources, including the Legacy money, made up slightly less than 3% of the state’s budget. This was close to the high water mark of 2002. Unfortunately, due to the disproportional cuts in the general fund, that overall commitment will decline to 2.5% by the end of this budget cycle.
All was not bad news however. On a positive note, it was encouraging to hear that some of the policymakers will be taking a closer look at how to better account for the constitutional requirement of supplementing traditional sources of funding. The Office of Legislative Auditor has laid out some recommendations for better tracking of these concerns and you can count on Conservation Minnesota to push policymakers to keep faith with the intent of the voters.
Second, Conservation Minnesota has also advocated for greater citizen involvement in developing recommendations for investments from these dedicated sources of funding that resulted from the Amendment. One of the areas that have lacked citizen involvement is the expenditure of the state parks and trails funds. A little over 14% of the sales tax revenues are dedicated towards maintaining a high-quality state parks and trails system throughout the state. Last session the bill appropriating the funds was put in jeopardy over a dispute between the very interests competing for the parks and trails funding. It mostly boiled down to a regional dispute between those advocating for metropolitan parks and those advocating for out-of-state regional parks.
Last session Conservation Minnesota advocated for a citizens’ council to make recommendations for the parks and trails funding. Even though a citizens’ counsel similar to the outdoor heritage portion of the Amendment funds was not developed for the parks and trails, there still has been a positive move in that direction. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr has appointed a 17 member advisory group to help guide the DNR recommendations and the advisory group includes representation from all the various regional constituencies competing for resources. Hopefully this advisory group can perform the necessary coalition building function required to create a solid statewide recommendation that can pass the legislature without the same kind of contention that occurred last session. Fortunately, the parks and trails recommendations will not have to be made until the 2013 session because last year’s appropriations were for the full two-year biennium. This should give them time to develop a meaningful proposal.
Legislative session starts Tuesday, January 24 and Conservation Minnesota continues to play its ongoing role as the aggressive watchdog for our lakes, wildlife habitat and parks.