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Outdoors spending plans taking shape

Dave Zentner of Duluth, right, and other conservation leaders say they want Minnesota lawmakers to accept natural resources spending plans funded through a voter-approved sales tax increase. Zentner, of the Izaak Walton League, was joined by Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership at a recent St. Paul news conference. Lawmakers also are considering a plan funding natural resources projects with state lottery proceeds.

ST. PAUL -- An influx of dedicated state tax revenue leads outdoors enthusiasts to believe a logjam of Minnesota natural resources projects will begin to free up this year.

State lawmakers are completing work on two outdoors spending packages that would pump tens of millions of dollars into conservation projects around the state.

Both are paid for outside the traditional state budgeting process and are protected by the Minnesota Constitution. Environmental research is the focus of one pot of money, wildlife habitat restoration and water cleanup projects the emphasis of the other.

Together, the programs are expected to spend roughly $165 million over the next year. Projects range from soil surveys in northeastern Minnesota to invasive earthworm detection around the state and from the restoration of western Minnesota prairies to the reduction of lake and river pollution.

In the coming weeks lawmakers plan to finalize the first spending plan that will be funded by a statewide sales tax increase, which voters approved in last November's election.

The constitutional amendment, which raises the state sales tax 0.375 percent beginning July 1, will fund habitat preservation, water-cleanup projects as well as park improvements and arts initiatives. The habitat preservation and water-cleanup portions are expected to spend $140 million next year.

In addition, legislators are near final approval of the latest plan from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, an advisory panel that annually recommends how to spend state lottery proceeds targeted to the outdoors.

That commission's latest proposal includes $26 million in land, water and wildlife projected geared toward research.

Officials involved with the proposals said each pot of taxpayer money has its own purpose, but over time the two could be coordinated, such as by conducting research with the lottery proceeds and later funding a project in response to the research with the sales tax revenue.

Still, they claim the spending proposals will not be duplicative.

"I'm trying to keep them both separate," said Jim Vickerman, a state senator from Tracy and co-chairman of the legislative-citizen commission. "I want to be sure we just don't jump back and forth, because we're limited."

"I think they have to stay on separate tracks," added fellow commission member Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker.

Proceeds next year from the voter-approved sales tax increase include $69 million that will be steered toward wildlife and fish habitat and forest preservation projects. The projects were recommended by the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council, a group of appointed citizens and lawmakers.

Council member Wayne Enger of Perham said the panel, in its first year, focused on habitat projects that are ready to be implemented. Funding recipients may include regional watershed districts, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the state Department of Natural Resources.

Council members are aware that the public will scrutinize how they recommend the tax dollars be spent, Enger said. Lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who ultimately sign off on the spending plan, ought to recognize that the projects fulfill the objective of restoring and protecting land and wildlife habitat, he said.

"I think every one of these projects we put on the table has considerable merit," Enger said, "and I think everybody along the way will also see that."

Another $69 million in predicted sales tax revenue will be spent on water pollution assessment and cleanup projects. That money will help the state meet federal clean water guidelines and keep some lakes, rivers and streams from being polluted, said Rep. Kent Eken, who helped write the plan.

"The decisions that we make this year on how to appropriate and invest these monies and the framework that we're setting up is going to set the precedent possibly for the next 25 years, said Eken, DFL-Twin Valley.

The rush to complete the spending proposals in time for the 2009 Legislature following the amendment's approval late last year led to a flurry of funding requests, said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown.

Groups have worked quickly in recent months to assemble the first year's proposals, but will have more time going forward to develop a long-term "framework" for how the money should be spent over the amendment's 25 year duration, said Rep. Mary Murphy, who leads a committee that oversees the amendment spending.


Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, said it was important in this first year to get some projects started, and lawmakers will review the spending carefully to avoid making mistakes or funding projects that cannot be assessed later.

Mistakes will be noticed. The leaders of conservation and environmental groups that lobbied for the constitutional amendments said recently they are watching lawmakers' actions closely to ensure the money is spent as intended and is not used as a substitute for other state environment spending.

The outdoors advocacy group Conservation Minnesota created a Web site to track the outdoors spending.

"What's critical to all of that we get it right this year, right out of the gate," said Duluth resident Dave Zentner of the Izaak Walton League. "We're going to have to be vigilant every year, but this year is the bellwether year for me."