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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published March 27 2011

Minnesota Political Notebook: Legislator proposes selling state park trees to make money

ST. PAUL - Minnesota should sell walnut trees to help the state’s budget, a state legislator suggests.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, convinced a committee to amend an outdoors funding bill to include his idea to sell black walnut and other trees in southeast Minnesota’s Frontenac and Whitewater state parks.

The lawmaker said the walnut tree is the most valuable in the state, but could not estimate how much the state would receive if the action was taken. He said income gained from selling the trees could soften the projected closure of at least 10 of the state’s 66 state parks under a Republican-written outdoors budget bill.

The University of Minnesota Extension Service reports that black walnut trees are the Midwest’s most valuable, and used for high-end furniture and other items. No one knows how many black walnut trees are on state land.

To no one’s surprise, Drazkowski’s idea upset environmental groups.

Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said that even in tough economic times Minnesotans want to protect the outdoors.

“Minnesotans passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in 2008 to ensure our parks, trails and other natural areas are preserved for our children and grandchildren,” Morse said. “Now, the Legislature is significantly and disproportionately cutting state support for our state and regional parks, and looking for other ways to backfill these cuts, such as selling off priceless features of these state parks. The old growth native trees are an important attraction and a key piece of our citizens’ enjoyment of our state parks. These should not be sold off fix a short-term state budget problem.”

Ramping up

The next two weeks will be the busiest yet in an already-busy Minnesota legislative session.

Budgets for each part of the state budget have passed out of their separate committees and legislative leaders say that beginning Monday the full House and Senate will begin voting.

“We expect a very long and detailed week going through these budgets,” House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said about the coming week.

But one week will not be enough, so many budget votes will spill over into the following seek.

In the Senate, agriculture and economic development bills will be debated Monday, but the rest of the week’s schedule is not set. In the House, a tax bill that lowers income taxes and keeps local aid payments static is due for a Monday vote.

Conference committees soon will begin after both chambers pass similar bills, so differences between House and Senate versions can be negotiated. The next stop for the bills will be Gov. Mark Dayton’s office, and he has not been happy with what he sees in GOP legislative budgets.

Late 2012 start?

The 2012 Legislature could begin on March 21, the latest in years.

The Republican-controlled House Rules Committee approved the start date in an effort to save money. It needs more committee votes, as well as agreement with senators.

Generally, Democrats like to begin meeting in early February in even-numbers years, while Republicans opt for March. Republicans now control the House and Senate.

The House committee also approved lowering per diem payments for legislators from $77 to $66 and to continue a staff pay freeze in place since 2008.

Flood waiting

Communities around the state, especially in the Red River Valley, asked legislative committees to speed work on bills funding work to prevent future floods.

But there is no indication when those capital investment bills may receive committee votes, much less when the full House and Senate could take up the issue.

“We need to hear that input,” Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said about cities.

Now that the input has been delivered, she could not say when the issue would receive a vote.

When asked about the bills, to be funded by the state selling bonds, Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said they are ready to speed money to communities affected by spring floods. However, the bonding measures would fund future flood-prevention needs, not the current flood situation.

“We can move fairly quickly as needed,” Koch said.

Watershed officials said if lawmakers wait until May to approve flood bonding bills, work on building dikes and other structures may not be done in time for next year’s floods.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com