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Pawlenty urges change to panel overseeing use of natural resource funds
Doug Smith, Star Tribune
October 7, 2004 LCMR1007

A new citizens board would replace state legislators in determining how millions of dollars of lottery funds dedicated to natural resources would be spent, under a proposal announced Wednesday by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Under the plan, the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources, comprising 20 legislators, would be dismantled and replaced with a seven-member citizens board.

The idea, Pawlenty said, is to remove politics from the process of distributing millions from the state's Environmental Trust Fund, which is funded by the lottery.

"That responsibility needs to rise above the political process," he said at a news conference. "I think we would be better served to have a decision-making process that's more long-term and strategic than the current system allows."

The process is lengthy, bureaucratic and subject to political pressures, the governor said. "And the political winds change from time to time," Pawlenty said. "I think we can do better."

The Legislative Commission first reviews and recommends natural resource projects. The Legislature and the governor then must approve those recommendations.

The dollars are significant: The commission currently is preparing recommendations for spending about $37 million for the next biennium.

Pawlenty also suggested that millions of dollars that the Department of Natural Resources have traditionally allocated could also be directed by the seven-member citizens group, dubbed the Minnesota Conservation Heritage Foundation.

The board would have a staff. The commission now has four full-time employees.

Pawlenty implied that the commission's spending has strayed from the original intent. He said the purpose of the trust fund is for the "protection, conservation, preservation and enhancement of the state's air, water, land, fish, wildlife and other natural resources."

The current system has sometimes hindered conservation efforts, he said.

Under Pawlenty's proposal, which must be approved by the Legislature, seven citizen volunteers would be appointed to the new board by the governor. They would serve six-year staggered terms to minimize influence from the governor and the Legislature, he said.

Pawlenty said the citizens group also could manage funds from a possible constitutional amendment that would dedicate a portion of the state sales tax to environment and natural resources. The so-called three-sixteenths idea would dedicate a percentage of the existing state sales tax, possibly three-sixteenths of 1 percent, to natural resources.

It has been discussed for several years at the Legislature, but it has never garnered enough support to pass, despite support from most of the state's conservation groups. Pawlenty reiterated his support for the concept, which would direct millions of dollars toward natural resources.

Representatives of many conservation groups, including the Nature Conservancy, Pheasants Forever, the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, were also at the news conference.

"This is an exciting proposal," said John Schroers of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance.

Pawlenty was asked why legislators would be willing to give up their power and authority over the millions in trust fund dollars.

"I hope they can rise above that perspective," he replied.

The governor said he would envision different types of natural resource projects funded under the new citizens board. But he said he didn't believe that the commission was allocating funds for "pork barrel" projects.

The Environmental Trust Fund now contains about $330 million, which is invested and continues to grow. A share of the lottery proceeds also will continue to flow into the fund until 2025, which means that the amount available for natural resources will continue to increase. The commission taps a small portion -- 5.5 percent -- from the fund each year.

About $50 million could be available by 2011.

Pawlenty said the idea of a citizens board handling such dollars isn't unique. He cited the Metropolitan Council and the Public Utilities Commission as examples.

DNR officials helped develop the proposal.

"We don't feel threatened by this," Deputy Commissioner Mark Holsten said.

A key question is whether the Legislature will support the idea. Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who was present for the announcement, said he thinks it will.

"I think they'll go along," he said.

Doug Smith is at [email protected].

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Pawlenty's plan deserves support
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
October 8, 2004 ANDY1008

As sound as Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision was this week to skip Bruce Springsteen's gig in St. Paul, the governor announced a better move still when he proposed Wednesday that the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources be disbanded in favor of a citizens panel charged with distributing about $18 million annually in Environmental Trust Fund money.

In announcing the plan, Pawlenty said he hoped the Legislature, which must approve the idea, would cede authority over the money to the citizens panel, in part because the streamlining that would result would better serve the state's long-term conservation interests.

Some legislators will not go quietly on this one. When it comes to money and authority, and retaining same for purposes of exercising power, few ever do. This is particularly true in the case of the LCMR, a cumbersome body whose legislative members miss few opportunities to send "environment" money to their home districts, however arcane or ineffective the result, or even intent.

Yet such is the nature of government, whatever its form, and it's naïve to think a citizens commission, no matter its makeup, would be altogether immune from the politics of self-interest.

Pawlenty's point is broader than that, and more important.

By its nature, the governor said Wednesday, conservation is not well served by a legislative commission whose planning horizon often extends not far beyond the current biennium.

"We can do better," Pawlenty said, meaning that interested citizens who are passionate about conserving Minnesota's resources, and who are unaffected by election cycles, can take a longer view of the state's needs and ultimately make better planning and funding decisions.

The new commission, as Pawlenty envisions it, would comprise seven volunteer members serving six-year, staggered terms. Members would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by legislators.

The offsetting of commission members' terms, Pawlenty suggested, would prevent any single governor from exercising undue influence by "stacking" the panel.

Pawlenty also said that certain grants and other funds distributed now by the Department of Natural Resources for conservation work would be shifted to the citizens group. Importantly, he also said proceeds from any future conservation sales tax dedication -- as has often been discussed by the Legislature, but never passed -- would be routed to the new citizens group for management.

The potential benefits of what Pawlenty is suggesting can't be overstated. But the big news Wednesday was that a Minnesota governor, finally, has engaged the good fight to conserve, and preserve, what this state always has been: a place where people define themselves, largely, by the lands and waters that surround them.

Just how Minnesota could have deferred for more than a century the action necessary to ensure that we enjoy forever clean water, healthy uplands and diverse forests is a question for the ages.

As is this:

How can it be that the aforementioned Springsteen, or any other fixture of popular culture, can fill an arena with thousands of fans seeking political "change" (however esoterically defined) -- yet most of the same people wouldn't cross a street to rally for a cleaner Mississippi River, the preservation of Minnesota's relatively few remaining wetlands, or the sanctity of the thousands of Twin Cities-area acres transformed annually from farmland to subdivision?

Political issues that these are, they are more accurately considered in the context of morality, spirituality and religion.

Which among our responsibilities, after all, is more important than stewardship of the resources that sustain us, and enrich us?

Pawlenty, a religious man, may or may not have framed his consideration of the new citizens panel and its proposed charge in these terms.

No matter.

His action has set in place a struggle with the Legislature, and within it, that must occur if Minnesota is to move beyond the conservation status quo -- a minimalist effort that has served little purpose but to measure the degree and rate of our spiral downward.

You want algae-free lakes 20 years from now? Trout in cold-water streams? Pheasants rising from cornfields? Bluebirds at your feeder? Eagles above?

In January, and throughout the legislative session, the governor will need help not just from legislators in his effort to set a new conservation agenda in the state, but from all who believe Minnesota's lot is not fated to ever-lesser circumstances.

It is true that Bruce Springsteen makes good music.

But this week, Tim Pawlenty made more sense.

We can do better.

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I personally agrre wit the Gov. Way too much politics in the distribution of this $, as well as with any $ in the legislature for the environmment/wildlife IMHO. A citizens panel would be great idea.
 
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