GOP playing political games with Minnesota Legacy Funding, 1/28/2015

Post date: Jan 31, 2015 8:18:44 PM

Update: 5/22/2016.

A compromise was reached, by which the White Earth Nation's project "Protecting Forest Wildlife Habitat in the Wild Rice River Watershed" was included in the Outdoor Heritage bill (SF 2527) and passed by the MN House and Senate. The compromise requires that the White Earth Nation own the land directly, rather than putting the land into the ownership of the U.S. government in Trust for the White Earth Nation. Apparently, the compromise satisfied those who were concerned that property tax continue to be paid (although the U.S. government does, in many cases, provide "payment in lieu of taxes").

This entry is about the controversy and political maneuvering at the Minnesota State Capitol in 2015 around the White Earth Nation's project "Protecting Forest Wildlife Habitat in the Wild Rice River Watershed". The project was approved for Outdoor Heritage Funding through the thorough, competitive evaluation process of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Unfortunately, Minnesota GOP Legislators decided in this case to exercise their power to reject this recommendation of the Council. Not due to expertise or additional research, just because they didn't like the arrangement of acquiring land to be placed in the ownership of an Indian Reservation. Some said the controversy was about the loss of property tax revenue, others said (perhaps less concerned about sounding politically correct and more concerned about addressing the issues) that it was about the expected or potential loss of control over the management of the land and the wildlife (including Gray Wolves, which would have sanctuary on Tribal Lands), and others spoke, more or less openly, of racism.

This entry was begun to describe the initial deletion of the White Earth Project from the Outdoor Heritage Funding bill HF 181 on 1/28/2015. After that date, an update was added each time something interesting happened. Each update is presented in its own box, with the most recent on top. The original entry is at the bottom. Confused now? Sorry about that; but the updates just kept coming in; and this blogger couldn't think of a better way to organize them.

Let's start with the 1/28/2015 video:

Full discussion of Rep. Green's amendment to defund the White Earth project.

Update, 6/12/2015:

This issue was not resolved, as hoped, in the MN Legislature's Special Session. The Legacy funding bill was passed in the Special Session (apparently based upon the 5/18/2015 conference-committee version of HF 303) without the White Earth project restored.

The White Earth Nation project "Protecting Forest Wildlife Habitat in the Wild Rice River Watershed" has been resubmitted for consideration by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council in 2015, and the MN Legislature in 2016.

Another conservation land acquisition project has also been proposed to the Council by the MN Deer Hunters Association, right alongside this project of the White Earth Nation. Hopefully, both will be examined with all of the expected concerns for how the private landowner would manage the land, its flora and fauna, its renewable resources, people's outdoor recreation on it, and other public interests in it. Probably, the $19 million MDHA proposal will not have to face the racial tensions or the narrow-minded questions of economic input to state and local economies that the $2 million White Earth proposal will certainly face again. Hopefully, more policy makers, this time, will examine the overall economic picture, without falling for a partisan detour down a single-issue rant on payment in lieu of taxes (PILT). Hopefully, more will realize this time that the financial benefits of these projects are to be measured by more than just one item on the balance sheet. Hopefully, they'll include other items including the benefits of tourism, real-estate, rural lifestyle, Tribal relations, Tribal community health, and land, water, and wildlife conservation.

More on the MDHA proposal:

Star Tribune. 6/4/2015. "Deer Hunters Seek $19 Million to Save Forest."

Update: 4/20/2015

The Legacy Funding bill HF 303 was heard on 4/20/2015 by the MN House Legacy Funding Finance Committee.

In a reintroduction of her 3/16/2015 amendment (to the earlier bill HF 181), Rep. Phyllis Kahn's 4/20/2015 A-5 amendment to HF 303 would have restored council-approved funding to the White Earth Nation's project "Protecting Forest Wildlife Habitat in the Wild Rice River Watershed."

There was no discussion, and the amendment failed on a voice vote. Rep. Kahn expressed her disappointment that those voting "no" had again declined to discuss their reasons for opposing the project.

Rep. Kahn's A16 amendment to direct State agencies to consider alternatives for PILT payments passed on a voice vote. Rep. Kahn supports PILT payments from the Outdoor Heritage Fund (see "Update: 3/21/2015" below in this blog for more on that controversy).

The Legacy Fund Finance bill goes next to the MN House Committee on Taxes.

Update: 3/21/2015

Sure enough, the pretense that this GOP amendment was addressed to the issue of PILT (it was not) has been exposed as a mean attack on public-land ownership. There's a continuing discussion of the actual issues at hand, and they dwarf this small-minded piece of nonsense from Rep. Green.

Here are a couple of articles about the controversy and some of the bills (e.g. HF 1707) that address the issue of public land ownership and PILT a little more directly (as well as explaining how those bills are still not addressing the real issues in a significant way):

Smith, Doug. 2015. "Tax Matter Becomes a Constitutional Debate for Outdoor Heritage Fund." Star Tribune, March 21.

Anderson, Dennis. 2015. “Clean Water Fight Needs to Be Made.” Star Tribune, March 26.

Rep. Green's out-of-place lecture to the LSOHC, White Earth Tribal Forestry & Wildlife, and MN DNR on the worthlessness of old-growth forest, the impossibility of preserving forest land "just as it is now," the sustainable option of the industrial 30-40 year timber-harvest schedule, and his personal desire to keep the forest land in question out of the hands of White Earth Tribal Forestry & Wildlife agencies and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Update: 3/16/2015

The Outdoor Heritage Funding bill HF 181 was heard on 3/16/2015 by the MN House Legacy Funding Finance Committee.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn's A-15 amendment proposed to restore the funding for the council-approved project "Protecting Forest Wildlife Habitat in the Wild Rice River Watershed."

Former MN Rep. Bill Haas spoke on behalf of the White Earth Nation, pointing out its mutually-beneficial work with local and State governments, the environmental and economic values of this project, and the land-title arrangement backed by the State of MN (an arrangement preferred in this case by the State of MN).

Rep. Denny McNamara explained that--although he had supported funding for this project on the condition that the title for the land be held by the State of MN--he did not support funding given the council-approved land title to be held by the White Earth Nation (in Trust for the U.S. Government and the State of MN).

Rep. Kahn's A-15 amendment was defeated on a party-line vote of 7 GOP "no" votes vs. 5 DFL "yes" votes as follows: Dean Urdahl (R) no, Josh Heintzeman (R) no, Brian Daniels (R) no, Mike Freiberg (D) yes, Steve Green (R) no, Phyllis Kahn (D) yes, Leon Lillie (D) yes, Tim Miller (R) no, Erin Murphy (D) yes, Mary Murphy (D) yes, Paul Torkelson (R) no, Anna Wills (R) no.

On 1/28/2015, the GOP Members of the MN House Environment & Natural Resources Policy & Finance Committee (plus Rep. Dill) deleted a carefully thought-out Legacy Fund appropriation to purchase conservation land.

What did they object to? The largely-public ownership of lands in northern Minnesota.

Why? That question is harder to answer.

The vehicle for the change was the A-4 amendment to the $100 million Legacy Funds appropriations bill (HF 181). It was obviously a GOP-wide proposal, but it was presented by Rep. Steve Green (R-Fosston). The language of the amendment was, as the author introduced it, "simple"; but the complications went back years--and hundreds of millions of dollars.

The amendment stripped (at least temporarily) a $2.118 million appropriation from the White Earth program "Protecting Forest Wildlife Habitat in the Wild Rice River Watershed".

Without any justification, expert input, or democratic process, the amendment transferred the funds (at least temporarily) to the Ducks Unlimited program "Accelerated Shallow Lakes and Wetlands Enhancement - Phase VII."

An official and a representative of the White Earth Nation were on hand to answer questions about the program. It was carefully developed, fully examined, and properly approved by the MN Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC). The Council did its work thoroughly and thoughtfully under its mandate from the Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution.

No comment from Ducks Unlimited. They hadn't been consulted on the change.

Despite everything the White Earth program offers to the people of the State, Rep. Green said he wanted to keep the land in private ownership and on the property-tax rolls (yes, he actually said "and I don't want the DNR to have it, either").

Lest anyone would have an easy opportunity to call this a racist action, Rep. Green presented his credentials as an enrollee of the White Earth Nation and a landowner on the White Earth Indian Reservation. Yes, he looks and talks just like his old, white GOP fellows, but he's a Tribal Member.

The fact remains, however, that the White Earth program was singled out from many other programs like it, that have the same effect on property taxes. Just as last year's appropriation for a land purchase on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation was singled out. Clever choice of spokesman, this year, by the GOP.

Like it or not, Minnesotans have an adversarial form of State Government. Each party tells us only the part of the story that supports their point of view. In this case, the DFL told us about conservation, and the GOP told us about property taxes. That left us (and hopefully, other, more level-headed Legislators and the Governor) to weigh the balance.

On one side of the issue are soil and water conservation, tribal relations, indigenous subsistence, rural industry, sustainable agriculture, outdoor recreation, logging, mining, real-estate, and tourism. The White Earth project will secure an element of the environment that's necessary for traditional wild rice production--an industry that is central to the Native American lifestyle and essential for environmental quality. The entire outdoor-recreation community would also benefit, along with all of its supporting industries.

On the other side is the partially-valid complaint that local governments and school districts tend to lose property-tax revenue in Counties where large percentages of conservation lands are bought with Legacy Funds. These complaints are "partially-valid" but, obviously, they ignore the huge benefits of these public lands--and the limited demand for their private ownership. These "partially-valid" complaints also ignore the fact that, for many of these public lands (outside of those purchased with Legacy Funds), Counties do receive payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) from the State and Federal governments that hold the land.

If you search the web for keywords like "MN Legacy Fund PILT", you'll find plenty of reading on the subject, much of it from the 2011 Session of the MN Legislature with Committee Chairman Denny McNamara at the center of a controversy over how to fund the maintenance costs of lands purchased with Legacy Funds.

Well, the controversy hasn't gone away, and yet another volley has been fired, with this amendment to the Legacy Fund appropriations bill.

Right now, there are teams of schoolchildren around the State solving problems like this in computer simulations like SimCityEDU. They're considering both sides of the story, and they're balancing them to come out with a mutually-beneficial result. They're going to make good State Legislators.

And, by the way, there are a number of concerned educators and policy makers working to keep rural schools fully funded and delivering quality education--without skimping on conservation in the process. The link that's being made on this issue between public lands, conservation, and school funding is artificial and false. The actual goal in this case seems to be something other than property taxes or school funding (hint: Tribal relations).

The A-4 amendment to HF 181 was passed 13-8 by the committee on the following, party-line vote:

Yes: Denny McNamara (R), Tony Cornish (R), David Dill (D), Dan Fabian (R), Kelly Fenton (R), Steve Green (R), Tom Hackbarth (R), Dave Hancock (R), Josh Heintzeman (R), Jim Newberger (R), Jason Rarick (R), Paul Torkelson (R), Mark Uglem (R).

No: Karen Clark (D), Peter Fischer (D), Rick Hansen (D), Alice Hausman (D), Frank Hornstein (D), Clark Johnson (D), John Persell (D), Jeanne Poppe (D).


More references can be found by searching the web for keywords like "MN Legacy Fund PILT".

McNamara, Dennis, Rick Hansen, Tom Saxhaug, and Bill Ingebrigtsen. 2015. MN 2015 HF 181 / SF 242: Outdoor Heritage Fund Money Appropriated, Outdoor Heritage Fund Money Requirements Modified, Previous Appropriation Modified, and Appropriating Money.

Mohr, Jonathan. 2015. "Amendment Could Jeopardize $100 Million Outdoor Heritage Fund Bill." Session Daily. January 28.

Mohr, Jonathan. 2015. “How Much Is Too Much: Legacy Committee Surveys State Land Ownership.” Session Daily. February 9.