My View: GOP House plan undermines Legacy, outdoors funding Mankato Free Press, 23 hrs ago Rare are times when citizens cast a vote in favor of higher taxes for themselves. But back in November, 2008 — even as the national economy was taking a nose dive — nearly 60 percent of Minnesotans who went to the polls did just that by approving a constitutional amendment to raise the state sales tax by 3/8ths of 1 percent, dramatically underscoring the value they place in their outdoor and cultural heritage. The measure, which has come to be known as the Legacy Amendment, called for money raised from the increase to be spent only on conservation, wildlife habitat acquisition and improvements, clean water issues, expansion of state parks and trails, and arts and heritage. Since 2009, millions of dollars raised from the tax have been distributed to arts and heritage entities. However, the lion’s share — about 80 percent — has been spent on fish and wildlife habitat issues, clean water and state parks and trails. About a third is dedicated to the Outdoor Heritage Fund, that part of the Legacy Amendment focusing on wildlife habitat. Recognizing the danger in allowing politicians to make spending decisions, a key provision of the amendment called for the formation of a committee of eight citizens and only four legislators to review annual projects submitted by various conservation groups vying for Legacy funds. Known as the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, the group then passes along its recommendations to the Legislature for action. A key duty of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources since the 1950s has been acquiring land to establish Wildlife Management Areas and other public recreational areas. Traditionally, it has been at a snail’s pace always with more willing sellers than the DNR could afford to accommodate with its limited funding. The availability of Legacy Funds and through partnerships formed with conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Blue Earth County Pheasants Inc., The National Wild Turkey Federation and Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, the acquisition process has accelerated significantly. Thousands of Minnesota acres of wildlife habitat once ringed by No Trespassing signs or in danger of falling to the plow or development now sport yellow State Wildlife Management Area signs proclaiming the area “Open to Public Hunting,” ensuring that our children and grandchildren will have access to outdoor recreation. Apparently House members don’t believe this is such a good thing. House File 707 — the Legacy Omnibus Bill — is a ponderous one dealing with the disbursement of millions of dollars raised from the Legacy sales tax. There’s a lot there to digest, but lurking within the scores of provisions are several key changes that directly undermine what many of us voted for in 2008. The House significantly changed recommendations made by the LSOHC dealing with proposed shallow water and wetland protection and acquisition of lands for wildlife management and scientific and natural area acquisitions. House members tinkered further with the Legacy bill by slipping in a “no net gain of public land” option counties could adopt if they choose to. Under the option, counties could demand any land acquisition to establish conservation areas such as WMAs and SNAs would require the sale of similar existing public properties to private parties. Other changes include redirecting $20 million from the Clean Water fund away from projects and used instead to cover the administrative costs of soil and water conservation districts. Such costs customarily have come from the state’s general fund. House members didn’t stop there. They also raided the Environmental Trust Fund to the tune of some $20 million, redirecting it from projects vetted and recommended by the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources to instead pay for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. No one would argue that CREP isn’t a worthy program. However, it typically is funded by bonding. Lastly, the bill establishes a new fund within the dedicated Outdoor Heritage fund to pay property taxes on lands acquired with the fund instead of from the state’s general funds, the current practice. House members then added a poison pill with a provision that if the property tax payment method is declared unconstitutional — a likely scenario since Outdoor Heritage funds are constitutionally dedicated for purposes other than property taxes — then no land at all could be acquired with the fund. It would be nice to keep politics out of this but it’s hard to ignore that Republicans now control the House. And to be fair, a few Democratic House members have attempted to tinker with provisions of the Legacy Amendment when they were still calling the shots in that body. Of course, this is exactly why we voters approved the constitutional change in the first place. We didn’t trust lawmakers to do the right thing in 2008 and it’s becoming apparent they can’t be trusted to do the right thing in 2017. Minnesota voters may have handed the ball over a new team last November. It’s becoming pretty apparent they are running for the wrong goal line. John Cross is a retired Free Press photo editor and outdoors columnist. He lives in St. Peter.