Dennis Anderson
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Minnesotans can take comfort in knowing this: The Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council -- which within a month will submit to the Legislature its recommendations for spending $70 million in conservation funds -- is by far the most inclusive, efficient and knowledgeable conservation committee this state has known.


The council, made up of eight citizens and four legislators, and chaired with energy and intelligence by Mike Kilgore -- a hunter, angler and University of Minnesota professor -- represents a beacon of hope to anyone who has ever sat through a committee meeting at the Capitol.


Minnesotans can take considerably less comfort in knowing that some legislators -- including some on the Lessard council -- are working overtime to undermine and discourage that panel.

How these opposing forces resolve themselves at the Capitol in the next few months will determine whether Minnesotans get what they voted for when they approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in November.

Some hunting and fishing advocates are so nervous about what they consider meddling by certain legislators in the council's business that they have re-started the same advocacy machinery that helped place the amendment idea on the ballot.

They also have re-started the advocacy machinery that helped send former DFL Senate Majority leader Dean Johnson packing back to Willmar when he opposed constitutionally dedicating a portion of the sales tax to conservation.

Example: Last week, Executive Director Garry Leaf sent 10,000 e-mail messages to Minnesota hunters and anglers alerting them to efforts by Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, among other legislators, to pass bills restricting the Lessard Council and/or allocating funds it oversees.

Ironically, Anderson and Hansen are members of the Lessard Council.

Recall that the Lessard Council's charge is to recommend to the Legislature allocation of one-third of the approximately $240 million to be raised beginning in August, when the state sales tax increases three-eighths of 1 percent.

Money the council oversees is intended to acquire and/or enhance fish and wildlife habitat. Another third of the $240 million will be dedicated to clean water. The remaining third will be split among the arts, parks and trails.

Establishing the citizen-dominated Lessard Council in the last legislative session -- over many members' objections -- was, in retrospect, far more important than its backers imagined.

No similar citizen-led councils oversee distribution of the arts, parks, trails or clean water funds. So legislators alone will decide how about $160 million in amendment money will be spent in those areas.

Which -- as has become abundantly clear in recent weeks -- is a scary thought indeed.


• Hansen -- without informing fellow Lessard Council members -- sponsored a bill (HF 345) to allocate $5 million in amendment funds ($1 million from Lessard Council funds) to a group, the Minnesota Conservation Corps, that didn't even ask the council for money. (Another legislative council member, Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, is a co-author.)

• Anderson -- without asking fellow Lessard Council members for input, and notifying Kilgore only after her bill was written -- sponsored a bill (SF 995) to establish an overseer of the council, which she wants the council to pay for out of citizens' habitat money.

You can't make this stuff up. Really.

If that weren't enough, Rep, Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, sponsored a bill last week (HF 1146) that would spend $20 million of Lessard Council money over two years for a hunter access program, something that clearly is not allowed by the constitutional amendment.

Yet all is not lost.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, is a retired Douglas County sheriff who serves on the Lessard Council, and he is a breath of fresh air. He actually shows up for meetings on time, is prepared, asks good questions and is respectful of the council and those who appear before it.

• • •

Some legislators are betting Minnesotans won't pay close attention to the amendment money and how it's spent.

But $240 million is a lot of cash. Moreover, nearly 60 percent of Minnesotans voted to approve the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, believing the money would be spent as intended: fundamentally, to improve the state's environment, and to do so efficiently.

If in fact Sen. Anderson, Rep. Hansen, Rep. Hackbarth and Rep. Gunther had the state's best interest at heart, they would author bills establishing citizen-led committees similar to the Lessard Council to oversee the $80 million that will be spent for clean water, and the other $80 million that will be spent on the arts, parks and trails.

Minnesotans, in fact, should insist on it.

Rather than depend on legislators who show up late to Lessard Council meetings, don't read its agenda beforehand, are forever running their fingers atop their Blackberrys and continually excuse themselves, Minnesotans would do better if citizens such as Kilgore, Scott Rall of Worthington, Bob Schroeder of Minnapolis, Les Bensch of Ashby, Darby Nelson of Champlin, David Hartwell of Minneapolis, Jim Cox of Cologne and Wayne Enger of Perham oversaw all amendment funds.

A cliché about athletics is that sports don't develop character, they reveal it.

Similarly, passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment has revealed some legislators for what they are: more concerned about themselves and their exercises in power than in the broader public interest, measured by protection of the state's waters, uplands and forests.

Dennis Anderson •