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Conservationists attempt to salvage months of work
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
May 27, 2005 ANDY0527

In separate interviews Thursday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said a bill dedicating a portion of the state sales tax to conservation should be passed during the Legislature's special session, and Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, will reintroduce such a measure in the coming days that House Speaker Steve Sviggum said he "absolutely" supports.

But Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, continues to oppose a vote in the Senate on a sales tax dedication plan this year, saying it would be considered by the Senate with other amendment proposals in 2006. Johnson did, however, "guarantee" that a conservation amendment bill will be voted on in the full Senate next session.

"If we brought it to a vote this session, there would be no end" to amendments to the bill, Johnson said, from "health care to gay marriage."

The conflict between Pawlenty and many House Republicans on one side, and the Senate DFL leadership on the other, underscores one reason conservationists are frustrated as the Legislature begins its special session. They know if a proposal to dedicate a portion of the state sales tax to conservation were voted on in the House and Senate, the plan would be overwhelmingly approved. But they can't get the vote.

Still, conservationists are working overtime at the Legislature, attempting to salvage months of work that so far have produced less than had been hoped for.

Here's how things are shaping up:

• Constitutional dedication of funds for conservation: Neither the House nor the Senate passed the measure this year, though Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said Thursday a vote on Hackbarth's bill (which Sviggum will co-author) is likely in the special session.

Senate DFLers, including Sen. John Marty of Roseville and Johnson, have insisted throughout the session that constitutional amendment bills will be heard next session -- this even though in recent days the Senate (and the House) approved a constitutional amendment proposal in a transportation bill. That bill was vetoed by Pawlenty, but the amendment plan stands and will be on the ballot in 2006.

Pawlenty said the Senate's "excuse" not to vote on a constitutional amendment this session "was deflated" when it passed the transportation bill.

"The advantage of passing the conservation amendment now," Pawlenty said, "is it would give the Legislature time to write the enabling language, which would be helpful because the public could see how the money would be spent."

Countered Johnson: "My commitment is that there will be a vote on [a sales tax dedication for conservation] in the Senate in 2006."

Upshot: Sviggum might get the dedicated-funds idea through the House in the special session. Johnson, true to his word, probably won't bring a similar bill to the Senate floor.

• Reform of the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCMR): Pawlenty's plan to replace the 20 legislators who oversee more than $30 million in lottery money per biennium with a citizens commission passed the House, went nowhere in the Senate and is struggling in a conference committee.

Pawlenty: "We are getting a fair amount of push-back in conference, and there have been some informal compromise offers," he said. One would have a blend of legislators and citizens run the LCMR. "But that model may have constitutional issues," Pawlenty said.

Johnson, meanwhile, said the Senate feels the present LCMR makeup is good, and that changing it as Pawlenty wants would give the governor too much influence. Asked if he would support a plan in which the Legislature would propose a pool of citizens from which the governor could choose commission members, Johnson indicated the idea might have merit.

For his part, Sviggum said he supports the governor's LCMR model but acknowledged some legislators are cool to the idea.

Upshot: The governor will have to play hardball to get what he wants -- and something close to what he wants is necessary if Minnesota is to conserve its resources strategically and for the long term.

• Clean Water Legacy: Pawlenty: "I support it and will sign a reasonable compromise. It can be funded out of the general fund, or by a constitutional amendment bill."

Johnson: "The Senate passed a bill that included more than $30 million" for water cleanup.

Sviggum: "The Senate's bill has zero chance of passing." What will the House do? "I can't tell you. We need to agree on [spending] targets first. If I say anything before that, I'll just create expectations."

Upshot: The DFL bill that includes a tax increase to pay for cleaning up the state's impaired waters won't become law. But the DFL has the upper hand on this one, because the House hasn't acted. Sviggum and Pawlenty will have to find some money, because the federal government is demanding action. Possibility: a compromise that accommodates the dedicated sales tax idea, the LCMR revision and Clean Water Legacy. But don't count on it.

Dennis Anderson is at [email protected].


There it is Gentlmen--it is quite clear--tell Dean Johnson and your local Senator to quit playing politics with the envirnment! Write them ASAP as the individual sportsmen all across MN working together can make changes. Please act now!
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