The U.S. Senate recount isn’t the only political confusion brewing in Minnesota. A few local Democratic legislators are making a fuss over too many dollars being spent on the program for which they were intended.
In November, Minnesotans also voted for the Clean Water, Wildlife, Cultural Heritage and Natural Areas Amendment (otherwise known as the Clean Water Act). The purpose of the amendment was to create another avenue of funding to preserve Minnesota’s wildlife and lakes in additional to its arts and cultural heritage. Unfortunately, the Amendment increased the sales tax to provide $300 million in revenue for the state.
Some Minnesotans opposed the Clean Water Act, namely because it increased taxes, but also because the funds the state receives from the Minnesota lottery — usually about $25 million per year — are spent on the great outdoors as well.
The Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) has the task of making “funding recommendations to the legislature for special environment and natural resource projects” with that $25 million. The LCCMR is made up of seventeen members — five state senators, five state representatives, five citizens appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty, and a citizen appoint by each house of the legislature.
This past week, the Star Tribune reported the LCCMR has been working all year reviewing recommendations for spending and determining how to spend the Lottery money. They came up with a recommended package of 33 projects. When it came time to vote on their package, they could not garner the twelve votes needed to properly move it out of the committee and recommend it on to the House. What caused the holdup? Three members were missing for various reasons, which kept the package from passing (it did receive eleven votes). That’s just one side of the coin.
The other more controversial side is that a Democrat, Rep. Jean Wagenius, proposed an amendment that would move some of the money allocated completely to wildlife ventures to create jobs related to wildlife preservation and a solar energy project. This created dissent among folks from both sides of the aisle.
According to the Star Tribune, one state senator, a Democrat from a northern Minneapolis suburb said: “There has been a growing chorus from LCCMR that it should no longer fund habitat acquisitions because of the new dollars [from the amendment].”
What an unusual concept — especially from a Democrat from Minnesota. In fact, it’s such a rarity, I asked a Republican commissioner: Was a Democrat legislator actually trying to create jobs with money that was supposed to benefit the environment?
He laughed and said even though the Commission “leans Democratic” there was a conservative principle brewing in the midst. “I know her and do believe that was her intent. Though some people in the dark alleys of St. Paul may think she was trying to arrange money for special interests. She was looking at all this money and trying to think of a way for people to have jobs in the spring.”
Fellow members disagreed. Democrats thought they couldn’t spare the $2.2 million in her Amendment to fund Minnesota Conservation Corps, a nonprofit group that hires young people to work towards wildlife preservation. Republicans thought her amendment was some kind of trick to keep the package from passing without their recommendation, thereby encouraging liberal legislators to change the bill and pass it to their specs.
The Republican commissioner said the bill — which includes the amendment about jobs — will be considered by the House and could still pass. He supports the move, though he worries someone — “from my side unfortunately, a real right-wing conservative” — may try to send the bill back, citing its failure to pass with the Commission’s recommendation, causing more delays.
If jobs are so important to local legislators, however, why were Minnesotans given the opportunity to vote themselves a tax increase and implement the Clean Water Act — especially if $25 million already goes towards similar projects? Rep. Wagenius herself supported the Clean Water Act calling the end of last year’s session “the most successful legislative session for the state’s environment and natural resources in recent history.”
Those eyeing Minnesota’s $4.8 billion deficit may feel differently, wondering if the fight between environmentalists and proponents of fiscal stimulus shows that state legislators are incapable of setting any budget priorities at all.