Years ago when former state Sen. Bob Lessard was campaigning with Bud Grant for dedicated outdoors funding, the legendary Vikings coach preached the importance of legislators keeping their hands "out of the cookie jar.''
In the case of "lottery in lieu'' monies won in 2000 for hunting, fishing, parks and trails, Grant's concerns came to life when lawmakers quickly raided the special account to help shore up the state's general fund. Lessard recounted the story this week when he testified for a bill by Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, that would reverse the funding reduction.
"There should be no tinkering with the money,'' Lessard said in Ruud's Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Committee.
The move would add about $12 million a year to a $38 million pot of annual money devoted to state parks; metro area parks and trails; fish and game purposes; and zoos.
It's too early to say whether the restoration attempt will succeed, but the push is receiving bipartisan support in the Senate and House, where a companion bill is ushered by Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, also a committee chairman.
"Hopefully the coalition of Minnesotans will continue to grow and get this great outdoors bill passed,'' Hansen said after Ruud's Senate committee voted Wednesday in favor of the change.
"Lottery in Lieu" allocations — created in the 1990s — are tied to state lottery ticket sales. Those sales are exempt from state sales tax, so the Legislature imposed an "in lieu'' fee equal to the tax. In 2000, Lessard and others led a charge at the Capitol to dedicate 97 % of the "in lieu" proceeds to the outdoors. Half went to the Department of Natural Resources Game and Fish Fund and nearly all the rest was assigned to parks and trails. Two percent went to zoos.
But just one year later, budget shortfalls prompted lawmakers to reduce the dedicated amount to 87%. In 2003, it was further reduced to 72.43% , where it still stands. The portion trimmed from the account still flows into the general fund.
Brian Rice, an attorney for Minneapolis Parks and Recreation, said returning to full funding would be worth $200,000 to $500,000 a year for his organization. That's enough to make a difference in planning and sustaining programs, he said.
The Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance (MOHA), the largest coalition of hunting, fishing, trapping and conservation organizations in the state, said timing for the change is good. The state is operating in a hefty budget surplus and outdoor activity is surging.
"Natural resource funding is often one of the first priorities cut in times of budget crises, even though many Minnesotans get their greatest solace from experiencing the outdoors,'' MOHA President Dave Carlson said in a letter to legislators.
Joe Duggan, a former vice president at Pheasants Forever, said outdoors funding accounts in Minnesota were established by voters to be additive. There are the lottery-related Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and the sales tax increase that pay for conservation projects under the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.
To the contrary, Duggan said, the percentage of general revenue dollars spent on natural resources has declined.
"I'm glad this bill is coming right now,'' he said, "It sheds light on these funds.''
Mark Holsten was DNR commissioner under Republican Gov Tim Pawlenty from 2007 to 2011. He was elected six times to the state House of Representatives and served as the chair of the House Environment and Natural Resource Finance Committee. Like Lessard and former state Rep. Bob Milbert, he supports the recapture of "in lieu'' dollars for the outdoors. The proposed change aligns with voters' original expectations for the use of the money, the three former legislators wrote in a public letter.
Ruud, too, said Minnesota voters authorized a state lottery on the premise that proceeds would go to the environment. "There's been some mission creep over the years and some of that money is now going into the general fund,'' the senator said. Her bill "is restoring a promise that was made to the citizens.''
In the House, Hansen said chances are very good the companion bill will win approval. In the Senate, the measure now goes to the environment finance committee headed by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.