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Lawmakers consider fees to ease outdoor budget cuts

Sen. Katie Sieben of Cottage Grove tells fellow senators Thursday that they should a provision in a bill to encourage composting of garbage. Staff photo by Don Davis

Higher fees keep could keep spending on outdoors programs from deeper funding cuts.

Even with millions of dollars in fee increases, some budgets may shrink rapidly, Minnesota legislators say.

For instance, state tax money headed to the Pollution Control Agency would shrink by 19 percent under a funding plan senators approved Thursday 49-15. And the Department of Natural Resources would get 5 percent less state funding.

To help compensate, senators approved increasing fees $5 million, slightly less than Gov. Tim Pawlenty suggested.

The House early Thursday approved 85-46 a bill increasing fees close to $9 million, according to House Minority Leader Marty Seifert's figuring. Fees would rise even more in future years, he added.

"It is full of fees," the Marshall Republican complained.

Among fee increases under consideration is a mine permit charge, which would raise $2.4 million. Requiring application fees from utilities and others who want easements to cross state land also could be imposed, bringing in another $1.2 million, part of an effort to plug a historic budget deficit.

Like other spending bills, the House and Senate versions of environment and energy funding measures now head to conference committees to work out differences.

Once a compromise is worked out, with Pawlenty administration input, a tweaked spending bill heads to the governor.

Complicating matters in the environment and energy areas - including the Department of Natural Resources, Pollution Control Agency and Commerce Department - is the fact that many of the programs are funded by non-state tax money, such as from the federal government, that comes with limitations on how it can be spent.

Among items being considered in one bill or both bills:

• Reducing forestry spending $11 million because state timber harvesting revenues are falling.

• Spending more than $1 million to determine how many sewage treatment systems are failing, a major pollution problem.

• Appropriating $200,000 to help students understand the causes of Red River flooding.

• Spending $15 million to continue assessing water quality across Minnesota.

• Providing more than $7 million to remove leaking underground storage tanks.

• Chipping in more than $500,000 to help continue building ring dikes around farms in the Red River Valley.

• Reducing by 6 percent the Department of Natural Resources enforcement budget.

• Cutting the governor's request for the Como and Duluth zoos from $320,000 to $270,000.

• Requiring non-Minnesotans pay a $20 fee to use state trails.

• Adding protections for children from toxic chemicals used in products.

• Spending $200 million of federal economic stimulus money for weatherizing homes, making public buildings more energy efficient and promoting renewable energy.

Among items in the Senate bill is a prohibition on the state selling recreational land such as state parks.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, said it does not make sense to sell some land at a time when another bill will propose buying thousands of acres of land - or obtaining easements keep land open to the public.

But Rep. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said that he wants the state to make money when it can sell land.

"We don't need to be just hording up all the land here in Minnesota," Ingebrigtsen said.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said the bill she shepherded would bring the Pollution Control Agency under control by changing laws.

"The PCA has run amuck," she said, giving the example of an environmental impact statement the agency conducted for an ethanol plant construction project. It took 5,700 hours and thousands of dollars to complete, she said.

The House bill requires non-state organizations to pay for their own environmental impact statements.

The House turned down a proposal by Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, to get rid of state-run plant nurseries. He said they put private companies out of business.

"They can't compete," he said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.