On Earth Day's eve, House deals blow to conservation billby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
Environmental and sporting groups are fuming over a last-minute vote in a House committee that left their long sought-after outdoors funding in limbo. House Rules Committee members stripped polluted water clean-up money from a sales tax bill, along with funding for parks, trails and the arts. Lawmakers also scaled back the measure's dedicated sales tax from 3/8ths of a percent to 1/8th of a percent. If the House bill is approved, it would have to be reconciled with a dramatically different Senate proposal that would increase the state sales tax. Conservation groups say the House move casts a cloud over Saturday's Earth Day rally for ducks, wetlands and clean water at the state Capitol.
St. Paul, Minn. — In the year since the first 'Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water' rally drew more than 5,000 people to the Capitol, the conservation movement has grown considerably.
It has added members of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Wild Turkey Federation. With the addition of so many more sportsmen and women, the rally group has strengthened its voice for habitat restoration.
So when the House Rules Committee decided to refocus its dedicated sales tax bill for the outdoors solely on habitat restoration, it might have seemed like a move designed to please the rally crowd.
Instead, it angered many of them.
"I hope 80,000 people come and raise all kinds of cane when we get the word out. I think people will be angry," says Dave Zentner, co-chair of the rally.
"It's totally unacceptable," Zentner says. "There's nothing for water. And the rally coalition has said that our bottom line is that this is conservation. This is not a hunting and fishing piece of legislation. It's conservation. And water is critical to every citizen and it can't be left out."
In changing its bill, the House Rules Committee essentially reverted to a previous proposal that had no money in it specifically for clean water. House Republican leaders say the bill is consistent with a conservation measure they've been trying to pass for several years. But Zentner says without the clean water piece, habitat restoration will be meaningless.
Scott Sparlin, executive director of the Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River, and president of the New Ulm Area Sport Fishermen, agrees.
"Hey, let's face facts. In the state of Minnesota people care about our clean water. It's a huge issue in the state of Minnesota and I think it's time for our elected officials to recognize that and get on with this," Sparlin says.
That's not to say that rally organizers oppose all of the changes to the House bill.
Many are pleased that funding for the arts was dropped from the measure. And some don't mind that committee members removed state park and trail money either. But when it comes to clean water, rally organizers are unified, saying it is equally as important as habitat.
Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a state-wide coalition of 90 conservation and environmental organizations, thinks House lawmakers have misread the political tea leaves.
"I really think there's a little bit of a disconnect in the legislative process because you'll notice that the rally group is solidly in support of an eighth habitat and an eighth water," Morse says.
Morse says it's still possible for lawmakers to change the House bill to include clean water funding. But he says it's a big hurdle to overcome.
"Now the concern is that positions might be starting to harden. And as has happened on other issues over the years the last few years in particular, when people harden and get rigid, sometimes you end up with nothing. You end up with goose eggs," he says. If lawmakers approve the sales tax proposal this session, Minnesotans would still have to vote on the measure in November. Dedicated funds require an amendment to the state's constitution.
Meanwhile, another bill is in play this session that would fund lake and river restoration efforts. It's called the Clean Water Legacy program.
Rally organizers support that legislation too. But they say it wouldn't guarantee long-term water clean-up money like the dedicated sales tax proposal would. They also say it would be vulnerable to legislative raiding in tough economic times or when political priorities shift.
- All Things Considered, 04/21/2006, 5:19 p.m.