Defending the Amendment

“Awake from your profound sleep!”

Ignatius Donnelly, 1856

These were the chiding words of Philadelphia lawyer turned western city promoter Ignatius Donnelly to his fellow Philadelphian brothers. Donnelly was a master of the pen and rhetorical argument. He was a booming orator and a bit of a dreamer who saw a mighty city on the southern banks of the Mississippi River just northwest of present-day Hastings, Minnesota. He had joined forces with John Nininger to promote this great new city to be known as “Nininger”. Donnelly was a promoter and Nininger had the land. They had visions of railroads spurring off westward to bring the agricultural bounty of the Minnesota prairies to their great port city.

Within a year their city was booming, thanks to the effective promotion of Donnelly, seeing the construction of 8 stores, 6 saloons, 3 hotels, 4 blacksmith shops, a plow factory, a sash and door factory and many of Donnelly’s Philadelphian lawyers. Donnelley built a grand house overlooking the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, the great city would never be and quickly turned to a ghost town. In 1857 the nation was gripped by an economic panic unparalleled in its history. Within a year the nearly one thousand residents of the great river city would soon melt away back to their Eastern enclaves. All that was left of the great city was Donnelly’s mansion.

Undaunted, Donnelly stayed in Minnesota to become one of its most recognizable political agitators. He served a term as lieutenant governor and three terms in Congress, but he was more known for promotion of social and economic reform. For the next four decades there was hardly a single agrarian reform movement he did not play a vital role in promoting. Also, from his mansion he would write several unconventional best-selling books on a wide array of topics.

As Donnelly would attest, being an agitator in the political process is not always an easy business, but it’s a critical role in the landscape of our great state. This difficult role is the role that Conservation Minnesota has stepped up to by defending the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Constitutional Amendment adopted in 2008. Like Donnelly knew some 150 years earlier, effectively framing your message in the press is critical. The good news is we were extremely successful at Conservation Minnesota in framing the message in the press this last week.

Both the Star Tribune and MinnPost had extensive articles on the concern that the last legislature has not kept faith with the constitutional amendment provision to expand investments in our great outdoors. Much of the money has been used essentially to back fill in budget shortfalls. This is despite polling that has indicated voters want this new investment to go towards expanding efforts to clean up our lakes and rivers along with protecting our wild places.

Conservation Minnesota has joined with several environmental and conservation organizations to recommend basic benchmarks for the Legislature to meet in order to meet this basic expectation of the voters to expand investments in our great outdoors. One of those basic benchmarks was to keep the state general fund expenditures for the great outdoors at 1% of the state budget. Just 1¢ of every dollar of taxes went to our great outdoors when the amendment passed in 2008. This was an all-time low in recent history and all we asked of them was to not go backwards on this already record low. Not a very high standard. Unfortunately, Conservation Minnesota’s budget analysis has shown the state’s general fund investment has dropped well below this 1% standard. Over $96 million below the mark.

It’s important to keep pressure on our legislators to “awake from this profound” mistake. They need to hear our voice with the same forceful style of the old agitator Ignatius Donnelly that we did not vote to raise our taxes in 2008 to solve the budget problem, but to expand investments in our great outdoors. A good place for you to stay informed is by reading the well laid out message in the two recent articles. You can link to them here:  Star Tribune article and MinnPost article.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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