Anderson: Citizen-legislative committee on resources still being steered by politics

·4 min read

Most important about the legislative session just ended is that it just ended. Completed work, to stretch the word's meaning, could have been accomplished in half the time and at a fraction of the cost.

But the entire Legislature is not the issue today; rather, one of its subsidiary panels, the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which recommends environment and conservation projects using lottery money.

Revised a couple of decades back by an 18-member committee, the citizen/legislator-comprised LCCMR replaced the LCMR — Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources — which consisted entirely of legislators whose self-dealings were legion.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding the many important land- and water-improvement projects recommended in recent decades by the LCCMR and successfully executed by universities, state agencies, nonprofits, cities and counties, the LCCMR again needs fixing.

The commission's problems stem almost entirely from imbalance. Its membership disparity of 10 legislators and seven citizens too often taints its decisions with politics.

It wasn't supposed to be.

The placement of seven citizens on the LCCMR was intended to dissuade legislators from pork-barreling projects into their districts. A problem also under the LCMR was that legislators often didn't show up for meetings.

And a citizens committee formed to advise LCMR members on the relative worth of projects was often ignored.

Dave Zentner of Duluth co-chaired the committee charged with remaking the LCMR into the LCCMR.

"My co-chair was Loren Solberg, a House member from Bovey," Zentner said. "I respected him. But we disagreed strongly on the makeup of the new LCCMR.

"I started out saying all 17 members should be citizens. He wouldn't budge, and finally I said I'd go 50-50, citizens to legislators. Finally, I got beat down and we ended up with the 10-7 split, with legislators in the majority. I was told if I didn't like it, I should get elected to the Legislature and change it.

"Even then, we still agreed that lottery money was never intended to supplant money already being spent on conservation, but instead to supplement it."

The 'poison pill' playThe other day near St. Charles, in southeast Minnesota, Jeff Broberg was in a deep hole he dug on his farm for personal and professional reasons.

Personally because he wanted to measure the fertility of his land, specifically the amount of topsoil that remains. And professionally because, as a geologist, he has mapped the soil types on his 170 acres to determine, in part, the likelihood he and his wife will ever be able to drink water from their well, which for 15 years has been poisoned by farmland chemicals, specifically nitrates.

"We have less soil here that was deposited at the end of the last glacial period,'' Broberg said. "Already by the 1870s, much of the land around here was so depleted it couldn't grow a crop. To grow crops here today, most of the required nutrients arrive by truck."

Broberg was a member of the committee co-chaired by Zentner and Solberg that formed the LCCMR, and Broberg later served on the LCCMR for 10 years, appointed by both Democrats and Republicans.

"Projects require 12 members of the 17-member LCCMR to be approved for funding, which we believed would require members to cooperate,'' Broberg said. "That worked well for a while. Now it's been politicized by both Republicans and Democrats.''

The brouhaha that erupted in recent years over proposed LCCMR funding for rural water treatment plants is an example.

As LCCMR co-chair and chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resource Committee, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, is a legislative player in all matters involving money and conservation.

Ingebrigtsen is among legislators who are still trying to send LCCMR funds to small towns to upgrade water treatment plants, even though grants for this purpose were specifically excluded in the LCCMR's legislative history. More typically, capital projects such as these are funded by local tax or fee increases, or at the Legislature by bonding.

"On the commission, we called this a "poison pill' maneuver,'' Broberg said. "Legislative members knew they could never get 12 votes for water treatment plants or any of these other ideas. But they'd put the idea on the table anyway, and then say, 'No agreement could be reached, so it's OK for the Legislature to revise the commission's recommendations and include it.' That way the matter goes to a conference committee or is otherwise settled out of public view."

The constitutional amendment that dedicates 40% of net lottery proceeds for environment and conservation projects sunsets Dec. 31, 2024. For this good and necessary work to continue — and most of it is good and necessary — voters must approve a new amendment, probably in November 2023 or 2024.

Key will be wording of the renewing amendment.

Some legislators will attempt to broaden approved uses of lottery funds to include their pet projects, while others will stay true to the original amendment's intent, and perhaps include language adding LCCMR citizen members.

Either way, voters will have a chance to be heard. They shouldn't miss the opportunity.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com