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LCMR hearing more parody than politics
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
June 5, 2005 ANDY0605

Last week at the Capitol in St. Paul, the LCMR -- the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources -- died. Its troubles long in the making, with attempts to reform it stalled, the commission's passing nevertheless surprised even those who, over the years, have benefited from its largesse.

The LCMR is -- was -- a body of 20 legislators that will distribute more than $30 million in lottery money this biennium, a sum that in 10 years will rise to about $70 million. The goal, generally, is to fund projects that benefit the state's environment.

The commission's final disassembling occurred during a House-Senate conference committee hearing. Ostensibly, the meeting was called to find middle ground between Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal to replace the 20-member panel with a citizens commission -- and a DFL counterproposal, thoughtfully produced, to oppose anything the governor wants.

The hearing unfolded more as parody than politics, something out of an old Saturday Night Live skit in which knowledgeable citizens meekly offer their reasoned viewpoints, only to be rebuffed by the Party Faithful, particularly in the forms of Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples.

Their voices dripping with cynicism, Bakk and Sams were rude in the manner of schoolkids losing a recess game fairly played. "Clueless" is how one observer described the pair, as well as others on the conference committee who couldn't quite handle being told the LCMR has stumbled in its constitutionally mandated mission to execute the wishes of the electorate and their lottery proceeds.

Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Mark Holsten, a onetime legislator and former LCMR member, was first to appear before the committee.

Holsten acknowledged when he was an LCMR member "he liked the control." But change is necessary to meet the state's many conservation and environmental demands, he said.

Next up was Ron Nargang, a former deputy DNR commissioner himself and now director of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota. Nargang, amazingly -- considering the conservancy has received money from the LCMR and likely will petition for more in the future -- told the committee his group had to think long and hard before even applying for LCMR grants. The process is that convoluted and time consuming.

"I think we need to change," Nargang said.

So onerous, in fact, has the LCMR "process" become that in a letter written last month, members of the commission's citizens advisory committee said they would quit if reform isn't forthcoming. One of that group, Nancy Gibson, initially was rebuffed in her attempt to speak to the conference committee, so put out were Bakk, Sams and other legislators, including Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, over the advisory panel's letter.

But give Ozment -- who chaired the meeting -- this: He at least recognized why the gathering was called, namely to find a solution to the LCMR problem everyone can live with.

Ozment, in fact, is a breath of fresh air, a legislator who isn't completely sold on Pawlenty's LCMR reform plan, but who nevertheless believes the Legislature should move in its direction, streamlining the commission while giving citizens a significant voice in its operations and funds distribution.

Yet whether Ozment -- or any reasonable person -- will prevail in reforming the LCMR before the end of this month is doubtful, so keen, apparently, are Bakk, Sams and others on the conference committee, including Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul and Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, in retaining power over the LCMR's millions.

Pawlenty might call the conference committee's bluff, demanding reform his way or nothing. Such a move could cause the shutting down of the DNR come July 1, as well as certain other state agencies. Either way, the LCMR as it has been known in Minnesota is gone. Most who sat through the conference committee's tortuous meeting realize as much -- knowing no institution can survive when its own supporters and constituents, including groups that stand to gain millions from the LCMR, turn against it so universally, and so publicly.

What should happen? A citizens committee should be empowered, by law, to oversee the LCMR, as Pawlenty has proposed. That committee should be required to disperse funds only according to a thoughtfully conceived statewide conservation strategy, with annual funding cycles. The committee also should be required to meet six times a year around the state to take testimony from local citizens and to learn firsthand about Minnesota's manifold conservation challenges.

Importantly, this law should sunset, or expire, in five years to allow for still more revisions, partial or complete.

However arcane this slugfest might seem to Minnesota's hunters, anglers, hikers and paddlers, nothing less than control of the state's conservation agenda is at stake. Should politicians, untrained as they are in the relevant disciplines, retain such power -- or conservationists themselves?

To listen to a recording of the conference committee meeting, go to

Dennis Anderson is at

[email protected].
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