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Scott Wente, Published April 10 2009

Conservationists eyeing lawmakers’ actions

ST. PAUL – Conservation and environmental advocates are keeping an eye on Minnesota lawmakers to make sure they properly spend tax money dedicated to the outdoors.

Proponents of the voter-approved constitutional amendment dedicating a statewide sales tax increase to the outdoors, parks and the arts said Thursday they generally like how legislators are preparing the amendment’s first spending package.

But they warn that in the legislative session’s closing weeks there could be attempts to change the spending plans and to cut traditional outdoors funding sources because of the new dedicated dollars.

The state will begin collecting the proceeds of a 0.375 percent sales tax increase July 1, following voter approval in November of the amendment that committed the sales tax revenue to habitat projects, water cleanup efforts, parks and trails and the arts. It will generate an estimated $234 million in the first year.

Lawmakers must agree on how to spend that dedicated revenue, in addition to reaching a deal with Gov. Tim Pawlenty on a new two-year state budget.

Steve Morse of the Minnesotan Environmental Partnership said environmentalists are concerned that Pawlenty’s state budget proposal includes a larger funding cut to conservation and environment programs than to other state programs.

“That looks like a substitution,” he said.

But Morse and others admit they will not be able to fully assess how conservation and outdoors programs fared until Pawlenty and lawmakers reach a budget deal and the dedicated-fund plans are approved.

An advisory panel of citizens and legislators – called the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council — has proposed about $69 million in dedicated-fund spending next year on wildlife and aquatic habitat preservation.

Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or swente@forumcomm.com