PoliGraph: Group’s budget claim is for the birds

This year’s state legislative races will be remembered for lots of reasons.

Every lawmaker is up for re-election. Redistricting has pitted incumbents against incumbents.

And, of course, there are the tropical birds.

At least three groups, including the Freedom Club, the Republican Party of Minnesota and Minnesota’s Future, are using an old vote concerning bird habitats to target lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. faust1.JPG

The most recent claim comes from Minnesota’s Future, a business-backed political fund that tends to support Republicans.

“While representing special interests in St. Paul, Tim Faust voted for a blank check to pay for habitats for birds in the Caribbean,” reads a mailer sent to voters in Pine County. “Wasteful spending is what caused our $6.2 billion deficit and government shutdown.”

This claim makes it sound as if taxpayer money from Minnesota’s general fund budget went out of the country, but the money for the birds actually comes from the sale of special Department of Natural Resources license plates.

The Evidence

The bird claim first surfaced during the Republican primaries, when the Freedom Club, an organization that supports staunch conservatives, sent out fliers in District 33 near Orono targeting Republican incumbent state Rep. Connie Doepke for her vote “to waste our tax dollars in Latin America for tropical bird habitats.”

DFLer Faust, who represented parts of Isanti, Kanabec and Pine Counties between 2007 and 2010 in the Minnesota House, is running again against Ben Wiener.

Like Doepke, Faust’s vote on a 2010 environment, energy and natural resources bill is coming back to haunt him.

faust2.JPGBuried in the legislation was an authorization for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to tap money from the critical habitat matching fund to help pay for a program that will preserve habitat in Latin America for Minnesota songbirds, such as warblers, that spend their winters there.

That money comes from license plate purchases, explained Carrol Henderson, who has been the DNR’s nongame wildlife program supervisor since 1977. A portion of the money from sales of special critical habitat license plates – they feature animals such as loons or white-tailed deer – is put into the fund.

Twenty-six states including Minnesota are pooling money to help preserve migratory bird habitats in Latin America, Henderson explained. That state plans to chip in about $10,000 of the critical habitat license plate money, but so far the cash hasn’t been spent yet.

It’s not all that different from a separate DNR habitat preservation program with Canada meant to protect birds that people hunt in Minnesota, Henderson pointed out.

“What this does is identify a lot of birds that we enjoy in Minnesota as being vulnerable at both ends of their flyway,” he said. “If it’s acceptable politically to send money to Canada to raise ducks, then we’re saying, we also have songbirds that are an important part of our wildlife heritage and we have a political precedent if we can preserve habitat for ducks in Canada.”

Chris Tiedeman, who works at Weber Johnson Public Affairs and operates Minnesota’s Future, says it’s precisely that sort of spending government shouldn’t do.

“It was legislators like Tim Faust who spent us into that mess,” Tiedeman wrote in an email, referring to the $6 billion deficit the state was projected to have as Faust was leaving office. “This was simply a good example of the kinds of frivolous and wasteful spending legislators in St Paul have focused on as they spent us into a deficit.”

The Verdict

It’s true that Faust voted for a bill that allowed the DNR to spend money on a bird habitat program in Latin America.

But there are some essential points missing from the Minnesota’s Future mailer.

This was not an appropriation from the state’s general fund, and therefore it didn’t contribute to the deficit as the mailer implies. Instead, the bill allowed the DNR to use money that Minnesotans voluntarily contribute to the agency when they buy a special license plate.

This claim is misleading at best.

This installment of PoliGraph was done with the help of MPR’s On Message feature. To learn more about how you can send us your campaign fliers, robocalls, and emails, click here.

SOURCES

Minnesota Public Radio News, Doepke to Cummins: You’ve been misled on my ‘right-to-work’ record, by Catharine Richert, Aug. 1, 2012

S.F. No. 3275, accessed Oct. 4, 2012

House Journal, Wednesday, May 12, 2010, p. 12973

Email exchange, Chris Tiedeman, Weber Johnson Public Affairs

Interview, Greg Knopff, House Legislative Analyst, Oct. 4, 2012

Interview, Carrol Henderson, Department of Natural Resources, Nongame Wildlife Program supervisor, Oct. 5, 2012

  • Peter

    I love this one. The one I recently got blaming Paul Rosenthal for the birds then went on to say that his reckless spending was responsible for the shutdown. Nevermind that Rosenthal lost in 2010 and it was Pat Mazorol in office during the shutdown.

  • Chad Sawyer

    This “fact check” is really revealing of how little people understand budgeting.

    According to Jim Nobles, the Legislative Auditor, the DNR has “deferred capital maintenance needs of over $125 million for state parks, trails, and other recreational facilities; an $8 million backlog of road and bridge needs for state forests; and an $8.7 million backlog of activities needed to bring existing scientific and natural areas and native prairie bank properties into appropriate condition.”

    Those costs grow more each year that the condition of DNR-owned parks, trails and other land deteriorates, unless they sell the land (which they rarely do, and are probably not in a position to do for most park areas).

    Additionally, the DNR runs a $6 million shortfall every year in parks and trails system operation and maintenance, further adding to the $161 million above.

    So, when people like Tim Faust vote to appropriate DNR revenue to things OTHER THAN existing obligations or immediate needs, THAT MAKES THE DEFICIT WORSE.

    Basic math.

  • Chad Sawyer

    It doesn’t matter where the money comes from – general fund or revenue exclusive to DNR – if a new program is authorized that takes away revenue that could have gone to existing unfunded or under-funded DNR programs, THAT CREATES OR ADDS TO THE DEFICIT. The existing obligations may or may not be paid for out of the general fund, but just because the DNR has exclusive revenue sources doesn’t mean they can’t spend them on EXISTING NEEDS. Creating new expenses when you can’t pay your current expenses is bad fiscal policy.

  • Ralph Crammedin

    For goodness sake, what part of “critical habitat for Minnesota songbirds” do Republicans not understand? This deal is not that complicated. I’ll explain.

    Certain birds do not spend their entire year in Minnesota. In the fall they fly to Central America, where they live during the winter. It’s called ‘migration.’ It’s sort of like your Republican friends who live in Florida (or at least pretend to) for six months and one day every year, to avoid paying Minnesota taxes.

    Anyway, while these birds are in their Central American winter homes, they need habitat, just like your tax-dodging friends need their South Beach condos. If the habitat goes away, the birds will die. If the birds do die, they don’t fly back to Minnesota in the spring. If we pay for preserving the habitat, we get the birds back.

    The part T Party Republicans especially don’t get, or want to get, is that saving habitat for these migrating birds has to happen where the habitat is, in Central America. So, if you GOPers prefer to save the money and let the birds die, you should just say so. Otherwise, please knock off the ridiculous, misleading campaign literature.

  • Jamie

    You go, Ralph!! :o) Great explanation!

  • JackU

    Ralph you left out one part of the explanation. Taking Chad’s numbers and the one mentioned in the piece it looks like the two options are:

    A $6,000,000 shortfall and a $10,000 contribution to a multi-state fund to preserve Central and South American habitat.

    OR

    A $5,990,000 shortfall and the hope that the money raised from other states will preserve the habitat for birds we want in Minnesota.