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Conservationists watching lawmakers' actions

Outdoors funding advocates -- including Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, left, and Duluth resident Dave Zentner of the Izaak Walton League -- say they are watching closely how lawmakers handle recommendations for spending new sales tax revenue on habitat conservation and water cleanup projects. Photo by Scott Wente

ST. PAUL - Conservation and environmental advocates are watching Minnesota lawmakers to make sure they properly spend tax money that is dedicated to the outdoors.

Proponents of the voter-approved constitutional amendment dedicating a statewide sales tax increase to the outdoors, parks and the arts said Thursday that they generally like how legislators are preparing the amendment's first spending package.

However, they warn that in the legislative session's closing weeks there could be attempts to change the spending plans and to cut traditional outdoors funding sources because of the new dedicated dollars.

The state will begin collecting the proceeds of a 0.375 percent sales tax increase July 1, following voter approval last November of the amendment that committed the sales tax revenue to habitat projects, water cleanup efforts, parks and trails and the arts. It is estimated to generate $234 million in the first year.

Lawmakers must agree on how to spend that dedicated revenue, in addition to reaching a deal with Gov. Tim Pawlenty on a new two-year state budget.

Steve Morse of the Minnesotan Environmental Partnership said environmentalists are concerned that Pawlenty's state budget proposal includes a larger funding cut to conservation and environment programs than to other state programs.

"That looks like a substitution," he said.

But Morse and others admit they will not be able to fully assess how conservation and outdoors programs fared until Pawlenty and lawmakers reach a budget deal and the dedicated-fund plans are approved.

An advisory panel of citizens and legislators - called the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council -- has proposed about $69 million in dedicated-fund spending next year on wildlife and aquatic habitat preservation. Duluth resident Dave Zentner of the Izaak Walton League, who pushed for the amendment's passage, said he approves of the advisory panel's work in recent months.

Zentner said he is hopeful that lawmakers will follow the council's recommendations.