If ever there was a lab rat to experiment with bad government, the final days of a Minnesota legislative session is it.
In the rush to get the things done that they should’ve gotten done in the many months they were given, lawmakers often pass bills they haven’t read and have no idea what their impact will be. Sometimes they do and pass them anyway.
A few years ago, you’ll recall, lawmakers voted for a ginormous human services bill that contained a change preventing child protection agencies from using prior reports of maltreatment when considering a case. It’s how a 4-year-old ended up beaten to death in Pope County.
Now, former state senator Steve Morse, now the executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership; and David Carlson, president of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, are blowing the whistle on what they say is a “raid” on the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
That’s the pool of money from lottery sales that is set aside for “air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources.” Seventy-seven percent of Minnesota voters approved of the constitutional amendment in 1988.
On the last day of the legislative session, they write in an op-ed in today’s Star Tribune, lawmakers grabbed about $8 million of it each year for the next 20 years — an eighth of what’s in the pot — to pay off debt incurred for sewage treatment plants and trail projects, allowing lawmakers to claim a cap on a bonding package that was, basically, a lie.
No testimony was taken. The raid happened in the last hour of the legislative session, they write.
The bill didn’t reappear until the last hour of the session, when it quickly passed. In the midst of voting on thousands of pages of other legislation, many legislators didn’t know — and couldn’t know — what was in this bill or have time to weigh its implications or insist on changes. Many reluctantly voted yes, not wanting to scrap a bonding bill that funded important projects across the state.
But beyond the pressure-cooker of the end of session, we can see the damage done to the Trust Fund and the public trust. We can’t brush off this raid as a one-time event. If it is allowed to stand, the floodgates could open. Further raids are possible on this and other constitutionally dedicated funds, as soon as another legislator is looking for a new funding source.
The trust wasn’t designed to cover core functions of government, nor can it do so. This is why the enabling law for the constitutional amendment specifically prohibited these kinds of projects from being funded by the trust.
“The intent of the voters was to dedicate a long-term source of funding to protect, conserve, preserve and enhance Minnesota’s ‘air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources’ for the benefit of all Minnesotans. I regret that I am unable to erase the dangerous policy language included in this bill that, if continued, would drain resources from this Fund,” Gov. Dayton wrote in a letter to legislative leaders when he was forced to sign the bonding bill after the session ended.
It’s been a fairly common practice over the years as legislators play a budgeting shell game. The Pawlenty administration and legislative allies regularly raided the Health Care Access Fund — money paid by a tax on health care providers that was intended to provide health care access — to repair giant holes in state finances they were unwilling to close with tougher choices.
Morse and Carlson acknowledge the legislators may have had little choice, being “boxed in” by time constraints and all. But those are constraints that are annually self-inflicted.
They’re calling for the divided Legislature — Democrats control the House and Republicans have the Senate — to undo the raid and see to it that the fund’s purpose remains intact.
Last month, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and several other groups sued the state, arguing that it’s unconstitutional to use constitutionally dedicated money to fund debt on projects it was never intended to fund. They also argue the raid sets a precedent for targeting other constitutionally dedicated funds — the arts and outdoors money, for example.
The lawmakers who engineered the raid — DFLers and GOPers alike — defend their actions with a version of of “Six Degrees of the Environment” in which just about any project can somehow be connected to “air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources.” .
On a larger scale, the complaints of the environmental groups highlight a greater need for institutional reform to close the sneaky, last-minute deal-making that is the hallmark of bad governing.