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Don Davis/State Capitol Bureau Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City asks for an example of allegations that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has a conflict of interest in managing school trust lands. With Urdahl at the Tuesday House committee hearing is Rep. Dave Hanock of Bemidji.

Legislative notebook: DNR says it should keep school land duties

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's natural resources commissioner does not want to give up his job of managing 2.5 million acres of land, mostly in northern Minnesota, that support schools across the state.

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Commissioner Tom Landwehr told the House Education Finance Committee Tuesday his department manages 3 million other acres and a proposal to establish a new agency for so-called school trust lands would just make for a larger government.

"When I look at this bill, I see more expenses," he said.

Supporters of the bill complain the DNR has done a poor job of using the land to make money over the years. Money from sale, mineral leases, timber sales and other uses of the 2.5 million acres is split among all Minnesota public schools.

Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, said Minnesota schools have lost $400 million in the last 50 years because the lands were not well managed.

"We are looking to raise revenue for the schools of our state without raising money," said Grace Keliher of the Minnesota State School Boards Association.

Dittrich and other supporters of the change said the DNR has a conflict of interest because it is charged with the job of improving natural resources. They said a new school land trust fund agency would have a priority of raising money.

Craig Pagel of the Iron Mining Association said his members fear they would need to work with two state agencies instead of just the DNR if the bill becomes law.

The bill is advancing in both the House and Senate. Landwehr said it is likely to pass the House, but the bill has less Senate support.

Also, a House natural resources committee heard a bill, but took no action, to exchange state-owned property in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for federal land. Supporters said the state could gain some funds for the school trust fund.

In the education committee, Landwehr said such an exchange would take years because the federal government will not move quickly.

Holding teacher pay

Legislators are debating whether school districts should withhold pay for teachers charged with felonies.

A bill by Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, would allow districts statewide to withhold pay, just like schools in Duluth, Rochester, St. Paul and Minneapolis now can do. It unanimously passed the House Education Finance Committee Tuesday, and next will be in front of the Education Reform Committee.

But Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, said he finds the bill troubling because a teacher's paycheck could be suspended for months and eventually the teacher may be found not guilty. While the teacher would get back pay, he said, "that classroom teacher may not be able to survive ... without serious financial pain."

Education Minnesota's Jan Alswager said the teachers' union is concerned that a student who does not like a teacher could do something like plant a drug and cause the teacher to lose pay.

Money would flow

Several bills, mostly written by Republicans, would keep money flowing to specific programs in case of a state budget impasse like occurred last year, shutting down government for 20 days.

The Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday voted 9-6 in favor of one of the bills, by Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, to allow state money to go to cities and counties to keep road-construction projects going.

Last year's shutdown temporarily stopped road projects across the state.

"I don't believe local governments should be used as a pawn in a bigger issue," Howe said.

But Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said bills such as Howe offered relieve pressure on legislators to make budget deals by allowing work to continue.

In the meantime, Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, has a bill that would require mediation between the governor and two legislators from each party to resolve differences and avoid a shutdown.

Sheran's bill also requires members of both parties to be included on House-Senate conference committees that work out differences between bills the two chambers pass.

No moving over?

A state law requiring drivers to move over for parked emergency vehicles may be relaxed a bit.

A bill by Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, still would require a driver to slow down when approaching a parked emergency vehicle, and attempt to move over when on a highway with at least two lanes in the same direction.

The House Transportation Committee approved the bill.

"Our primary interest is that you move over where practical and safe, but in lieu of that, you can slow down to comply with the spirit of the law and keep the folks on the shoulder safe in the process," Beard said.

The existing law was passed more than a decade ago after a state trooper died after being hit by a vehicle in southeastern Minnesota.

Election to be set

Gov. Mark Dayton plans to announce on Wednesday when an election will be held to replace Sen. Gary Kubly, who died Friday.

Dayton's office said the announcement will come after Kubly's funeral in Granite Falls.

The secretary of state's office reports the election must be within 35 days. Besides the main election date, Dayton must plan for a primary election if needed.

Once Dayton issues a writ for an election, candidates may file for office in the auditor's office of the county where they live or the secretary of state's office.

No wireless coverage

A proposal to require all 54 Minnesota highway rest areas to add wireless Internet service received support in concept Tuesday, but the Senate Transportation Committee decided to give the Minnesota Department of Transportation flexibility to add the service like other states provide.

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, submitted the bill to give drivers "a chance to get off the road and give them decent wireless Internet."

The committee unanimously passed the bill, which may be included in a larger transportation finance bill. The bill, as amended, does not require adding wireless.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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