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.
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 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.
Buried 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.”
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.
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