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Column: The budget and the damage done

By Paul Austin, Conservartion Minnesota

When Minnesotans voted for the Legacy Amendment, we agreed to increase our own taxes to help ensure funding for the state’s environmental and cultural legacy needs. At the time, I bet few of us likely thought those new taxes would eventually be used as a tool to patch our highways, but if the current legislature has its way, that very well could happen.

Here is how legislators are pursuing this strategy.

After several years of state financial stability and with a $1.6 billion surplus, the Minnesota Legislature has once again managed to find itself facing an end of session budget crisis. One of the goals of this unnecessary “crisis” appears to be converting conservation and environmental funds, which Minnesota voters approved, into funding for roads.

Conservation is one of the only state budget categories where Minnesota’s voters have repeatedly stepped in to demand more spending because past legislatures were ignoring important protection of our cherished lakes, lands, parks and drinking water. We have twice voted to create and continue the state lottery.  And Minnesotans also voted overwhelmingly to raise our own sales taxes in 2008 to fund clean water, wildlife habitat and parks by passing the Legacy Amendment. The legacy vote also included very clear instructions not to use passage of the amendment as an excuse to reduce future commitments to conservation through traditional funding sources including the state’s general fund and regular bonding bills.

But that is exactly what appears to be happening. Despite a healthy budget surplus, the Legislature is slashing funding for agencies that protect our water and stealing from our future commitments to conservation. Legislators are also taking other expenditures that should come from the general fund, like $22 million in administrative costs for Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and shifting them to legacy funds. This shift is exactly the kind of budget gimmick that the voters did not want to see happen when voting in a bipartisan manner to support the Legacy Amendment.

By not passing a bonding bill last year, legislators failed to meet significant needs for local water treatments plants and have left unfunded a major clean water initiative, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, that helps farmers improve water quality. But instead of putting a bonding bill together that fully addresses these needs, the House is slow walking the bonding bill as they grab as many legacy and lottery funds as possible to substitute for bonding funds. These raids resulted in cuts to other clean water programs while overriding both current and future funding recommendations of the citizen councils who spend countless hours vetting projects to ensure maximum benefit.

The goal of all of this cutting and substitution is to make room for general fund spending and increased bonding on road projects. Apparently raiding voter approved conservation funds is seen as better politics than finding a sustainable revenue source for transportation.

In the current manufactured budget crisis, there are those who will try to justify each of these raids, shifts and gimmicks. But taken together, they reflect a clear strategy to subvert the will of the people for short-term political gain.

Legislators are counting on state’s agencies and interest groups to focus on their short-term needs, and not step back and see the big picture of what precedents these changes to state budgeting practices will be setting for the long term. If the budgets remain on current trajectory, they will greatly diminish the effectiveness of the Legacy Amendment, lottery funds and all state conservation efforts for years to come. The work of thousands of citizens who banded together from across the state, and the repeated votes of millions, will be ignored and pushed aside for a one-time political win.

Despite an outpouring of criticism from every corner of the state, today, this outcome seems likely. But it can be stopped if the governor and lawmakers stand up for the idea that Minnesotans’ votes actually matter.    

Paul Austin is the Executive Director of

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