How to invest new money in the environment: a nice problem to haveby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
In Tuesday's election, more Minnesotans voted to tax themselves to pay for a healthier environment than voted to send Barack Obama to the White House. The Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment adds three-eighths of a percent to the state sales tax, and it's expected to raise about $300 million. The arts will get about 20 percent of that, and the remainder goes to outdoor projects. People are already trying to figure out which outdoor projects will get money.
St. Paul, Minn. — Next summer, a lot of new money will suddenly be available to gun clubs wanting to improve pheasant habitat, small towns needing to upgrade their sewage treatment plants, and state parks desperate to repair shabby visitor centers and campgrounds.
The constitutional amendment specifies that about a third of the money will go to cleaning up Minnesota's polluted lakes and rivers. Another third will support projects to protect forests, prairies and wetlands for wildlife habitat, hunting, and fishing and 14 percent is for parks and trails.
The money doesn't go directly to state agencies like the DNR or the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. For the two biggest pots of money, two citizen advisory groups will review proposals and make recommendations to the legislature, which will make the final decisions on which projects get money.
One of the citizen groups is the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council. It will make recommendations on the land and habitat piece.
By law it has to meet by December 1st.
The groups that fought to pass the amendment want to have some say on who sits on that council.
After 10 years of lobbying, reality is slapping supporters in the face, says Don McMillan, President of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance.
"When we woke up this morning, we said, 'Gee, we've got to figure out who's going to be on this council, and pretty soon there's going to be projects coming up,'" he says. "We may have created more work for ourselves than we had when we were trying to pass the darned thing."
There are bound to be some controversies over which projects to fund, McMillan says.
They can range from partnering with local groups to improve habitat, to buying big chunks of land to keep it open for wildlife and the public, rather than being developed.
Peggy Ladner, director of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, says it should be pretty obvious how to allocate the money.
"We know already where are the remaining prairies that need be protected, we already know where the large blocks of forests are, that are critical to clean air, clean water, wildlife, and so forth," she says.
That's pretty inspiring. But a lot of the work that needs to be done is more mundane, like cleaning up Minnesota's polluted waters.
That's where the second advisory group comes in.
The Clean Water Council was set up in 2006 to meet requirements of the federal Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Council can do a good job of allocating money to clean up Minnesota's polluted lakes and rivers, says Steve Morse, with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.
"What we have in the early years is modernizing sewage treatment plants to bring down their phosphorus discharge levels, bringing them up to more current standards, and doing that through grants to modernize sewage treatment plants," he says.
Money will go to help families bring their septic systems up to code, and to build buffer strips between rivers and farmland.
Minnesota has tested about 15 percent of its lakes and rivers, and 40 percent of those are polluted.
"This is long term stuff," Morse says. "That's why this funding is so important that it be a long-term commitment: because in the political cycle, people tend to look at two-year budget cycles, and we can't do that and get the job done on this."
For parks and trails, there's a lot less money, and at least at first, there won't be a citizens committee to handle it; it'll run through the usual legislative process. There's a huge backlog of work to do in state and regional parks. But there will also be requests to add new parks.
A less tangible outcome of the amendment campaign is that there's a new coalition of diverse groups committed to Minnesota's environment. Environmentalists and hunters have learned how to compromise and work together, the Nature Conservancy's Peggy Ladner says.
"I have closer relationships with people in the conservation, environment and sports community than I have in the past," she says. "I trust many of them, and I know we'll work together to take this opportunity that we have and make it real."
One thing they're going to watch for is to make sure the legislature doesn't reduce its usual funding for environmental needs. They say the new sales tax money is not supposed to replace existing funding for natural resources.
- All Things Considered, 11/06/2008, 4:50 p.m.