The Mysterious Process of Legislation

tumafeature“To the Chippewas that sprawling series of lakes and rivers known as the Kawashaway was a land of the ministry.”

Sigurd Olson
The Singing Wilderness
1956

On your Boundary Water maps today the Kawashaway is now known as the Kawishiwi.  Yes, now that the spring rains are finally washing away winter I’m getting BWCAW fever again.  I have W.A. Fisher maps and battling smallmouth bass on my mind. So it wasn’t too hard to grab my old well-worn copy of The Singing Wilderness to start reading the “Spring” chapters again and dream of that next trip.  While reading from Chapter Two “No Place Between”, the words jumped out at me where the venerable wilderness defender penned:

“To the Chippewas that sprawling series of lakes and rivers known as the Kawashaway was a land of the ministry.  Bounded by brooding stands of pine, its waters were dark, their origins unknown.  According to the ancients, the land belonged to those who had gone, was forbidden to those who lived.  From the Algonquin Kaw meaning “no” and Ashaway meaning “the place between,” it took its name: “no place between,” a spirit land.  Primitive races all over the world have such places, their origins buried in mystery and forgotten legends.  Strange things have happened there, and the sense of awe and mystery is always present.”

The place where the legislature is now is a similar mysterious place like the Kawashaway where strange things happen and much is a mystery. This is the time where the legislature puts together their omnibus finance bills. The development of these bills takes on a life of their own without explanation. Long dead bills mysteriously reappear and others that seemed to have a lot of life early on just fade away into the cold gray granite of the Capitol corridors. Complicated budget spreadsheets somehow add up as the final proposals of each legislative body take shape.

The development of the Environment and Natural Resources bill is always hectic as legislators who have been laying around like dormant hibernating black bears in winter all of a sudden wake up with a sudden primal urgency. This strange phenomenon of chaotic processing of legislation occurs with the coming of spring, the origins of which are “buried in mystery and forgotten legends.”  As a result of this phenomenon, those of us who have lobbied for a number of years know that strange things happen here in this Kawashaway of the legislative process.

The legislature has finally released their specific proposals for funding in the area of the environment and natural resources. This now gives us the chance to at least look at how the different proposals compare. To start this week, we will look at how the governor, House and Senate compare on their proposals to spend general fund dollars in some of our key conservation agencies. Conservation Minnesota has long used the general fund numbers from DNR, PCA, BWSR, Met Council (water and parks) and Dept. of Ag to gauge a general barometer on the commitment to the great outdoors.

During the last biennium the state actually spent $278.6 million on these agencies from the general fund. Due to some one-time budget gimmicks, the actual adjusted base amount for this upcoming biennium is $249.9 million. The following are the budget recommendations for general fund expenditure:

Governor-           $267.8 million
Senate –               $271.1 million
House  –              $271.7 million

As a percent of the general fund we have recently suggested they shoot for the very low target of 1%. Only 12 years ago these agencies made up 2% of the general fund budget. When you look at these recommendations as a percent of their overall general fund budget targets, you get the following:

Governor –          0.71%
Senate –               0.71%
House –               0.72%

The bottom line from a big picture standpoint is that there is very little difference between the proposals from the governor, Senate and House. Even between agencies there is not a lot of significant difference of focus. The only significant difference is that the Senate has about $3.5 million more for the DNR than the House. The House has about $500,000 more for the PCA. There are some significant differences on spending priorities within the particular agencies.

As always in our area, one needs to do a more detailed analysis of the investments from all funding sources to get the full picture. Only about 14% of these agencies’ budgets are made up of the general fund. Identifying how these agencies do when you look at all different sources is a little more complicated because a lot of these appropriations come through multiple omnibus bills. We will start unraveling some of those more detailed differences in the next few weeks.

Nonetheless, from the general fund perspective there is not a whole lot of difference from the governor’s recommendations and those of the legislature. General fund investments in the great outdoors are still at a record all-time low as a percent of the overall budget. Legislative recommendations have a slight improvement over the governor’s recommendation. The budgets actually contract slightly compared to what was actually spent last biennium, but that was the result of several one-time gimmicks. The good news is that all of the budgets have moved away from these one-time funding gimmicks and are now providing more stable investments that do a better job in building long-term base budget support. In short, a little less money from the

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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