John Myers column: It’s time to renew Minnesota natural resource's trust fund
Lawmakers must act to put a constitutional question on the 2024 election ballot or the trust fund expires.
ST. PAUL — Mostly lost so far this year at the state Capitol — amid the legislative rabble over marijuana, the budget surplus, tax cuts and rebate checks — is perhaps among the most important legislation ever for Minnesota’s outdoor future.
HF 1900 and SF 2404 move to renew the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and to keep stocking it with a portion of the state’s profits on the lottery.
The bills would place a question on the 2024 general election ballot asking voters, again, whether the state’s constitution should guarantee the lottery money go to solve environmental problems and bolster natural resources like clean air, clean water and undeveloped places for wildlife and recreation.
Unless the bills pass, and until voters renew the amendment, the dedication of the money and the trust fund cease to exist at the end of 2024.
This should be a slam dunk, one of those no-brainer, everybody-wins, bipartisan votes for state lawmakers working together to make a better Minnesota. But there is still some opposition out there.
In 1988, Minnesota voters overwhelmingly passed constitutional amendments to establish a state lottery and to create the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund , a permanent trust with funding now provided by 40% of net lottery proceeds. (The other 60% goes into the state's general fund.)
We can all thank the late Willard Munger, Minnesota's Mr. Environment, for that connection. The Duluth lawmaker highly disliked the idea of a lottery — he considered a tax on the poor — but, when seeing a lottery bill was going to pass, demanded that it benefit the environment.
The trust fund has been reapproved by two additional constitutional amendments. In 1990, 75.31% of voters upgraded the use of lottery proceeds from a statutory dedication to a constitutional dedication expiring in 2001. And in 1998, 73.95% of voters extended this dedication through 2024.
Polling shows Minnesotans still strongly favor the lottery/trust fund system, and it’s likely nearly three out of four of us will vote for it again. But only if it gets on the ballot.
Since 1991, when the lottery money started rolling in, the fund has provided nearly $875 million to nearly 1,800 projects around the state. That includes research like the groundbreaking Voyageurs Wolf Project that has uncovered never-before-known secrets of northern Minnesota’s wolves. Millions of trust dollars have gone to study and create the best habitat for wildlife, including Northeastern Minnesota's troubled moose population and helping the endangered tern population in Duluth’s harbor.
This year’s trust fund spending will help fund migratory research at Hawk Ridge; look at ways to combat didymo, the rock snot algae invading North Shore trout streams; and help UMD researchers, with nearly $1 million, plant tree seedlings to capture carbon and ensure the future of northern Minnesota’s forests. Pheasants Forever will get $876,00 to develop better bee habitat in the state, knowing that grasslands and wildflowers good for bees are good for roosters and the Minnesotans who hunt them.
Those are just a few of the dozens of projects totaling nearly $80 million this year alone.
In addition to renewing the fund, the legislation now advancing at the Capitol in St. Paul would also boost the trust fund’s share from 40% to 50%, in part to make up for the ongoing decline in how much general fund money has been going to environmental and natural resource spending in recent years, from more than 2% of to just 1% of state spending.
The question that would be put to voters reads as follows:
"Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to protect drinking water sources; protect the water quality of lakes, rivers, and streams; and protect forests to improve air quality, wildlife habitat, natural areas, parks, and trails by extending the transfer of proceeds from the state-operated lottery to the environment and natural resources trust fund, to increase the portion of lottery proceeds transferred to the fund from the lottery from 40 to 50 percent, and to limit the uses of trust fund money?”
Here’s how the trust fund works: The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources makes well-vetted recommendations to the full Legislature which generally (if political shenanigans aren’t in play) approves the recommended funding. The commission determines if projects meet the requirements "for the public purpose of protection, conservation, preservation, and enhancement of the state's air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources.” (Note the lottery-stocked trust fund is separate from the three-eighths of 1% sales tax money from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, also approved by voters in 2008 as a different constitutional amendment.)
Some lawmakers have been whining that more of the trust fund money should go to “hook-and-bullet” projects that more directly benefit hunters and anglers. But those clearly aren’t the only areas the fund was intended for. Moreover, a healthy environment able to support vibrant ecosystems is good for fish and wildlife. Without clean water and unspoiled habitat, fish and wildlife simply won’t thrive.
While the bill isn’t seen as controversial — it needs just a simple majority of the House and Senate and in fact no action by the governor because it's a constitutional question — several hunting, angling, environmental and conservation groups, including Conservation Minnesota, are engaging their members across the state to send postcards to lawmakers urging their support.
“We want to get it done this year so there’s plenty of time to explain it to the public. … So everyone is entering the voting booth (in November, 2024) with the information they need,’’ said Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota.
Austin said the trust fund provides a stable source of funding for natural resources even when state budget shortfalls or politics might stand in the way of traditional sources.
“The trust fund also has more weight because it gets the support of such a big majority of Minnesotans,’’ Austin added.
So, Minnesota lawmakers, it’s time to cast aside those petty differences on how best to bolster Minnesota's great outdoors. Let the scientists and wildlife and fish managers and foresters figure that out. All you need to do is vote yes on these bills so Minnesotans can approve it one more time.
Now get ‘r done.