The 2023 legislative session was one of the busiest—and perhaps most rewarding—for the Greater Minnesota Parks and Trails (GMPT) organization and our members in years. So, this update is to provide a general summary of GMPT’s legislative efforts this year. We also conducted numerous legislative forums throughout the session, which you can view on the Past Forums page of the GMPT website.
Heading into the legislative session, the GMPT had identified four main goals on its legislative agenda:
- Protecting Greater Minnesota’s share of Legacy funding
- Obtaining permanent a general fund appropriation to pay for the operating costs of the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission (GMRPTC, or the “Commission”)
- Supporting the passage of an LCCMR bill with funding for the DNR local parks and trails programs as well as selected local and regional parks and trails
- Supporting a bonding bill that included funding for local and regional parks and trails grants programs
As explained below, 2023 was one of our most successful sessions yet. We added a new revenue stream for designated regional parks and trails, increased funding for local parks and trails, protected Greater Minnesota’s share of Legacy funding, and stopped and/or narrowed a number of harmful policy proposals.
DLF TRIFECTA PRESENTS OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES
The 2022 election delivered an outcome that few had anticipated—a DFL trifecta. In other words, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party won control of the House, the Senate, and the Governor’s office for the first time in a decade. This development, combined with a historic budget surplus and pent-up demand for both spending and policy changes on a variety of issues, made for a fast-paced and busy session.
The political shift provided our organizations with opportunities and challenges. Over the years, the DFL has shown itself more willing to spend money on parks and trails infrastructure and outdoor recreation. It has also been less interested in imposing punitive restrictions on how those funds could be spent. However, the geographic makeup of the DFL majority has shifted over the last decade and is now dominated by metropolitan legislators. The top leaders in the House and Senate all resided in the metropolitan area. The leaders and DFL members of our key legislative committees in both the House and Senate were also overwhelmingly from the metropolitan area. This composition meant that there were fewer voices to advocate for our concerns and needs, particularly against some metropolitan legislators who did not believe that regional and local parks and trails outside their districts should be a priority. Despite those obstacles, we had many accomplishments throughout the legislative session.
LEGACY FUNDING AND POLICY
Every other year, the Legislature passes the Legacy budget bill, which allocates 14% of the Legacy fund to parks and trails. One of the reasons our organization exists is to ensure that Greater Minnesota gets its fair share of those funds. Throughout the session, our lobbyist Elizabeth Wefel worked with GMRPTC Executive Director Renee Mattson to meet with the members of the Senate and House Legacy committees and later with the conference committee appointed to negotiate the bill.
Most committee members were new to Legacy, and many were new to the Legislature. We focused on helping these legislators understand the importance of Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails and how Legacy funds have helped build this vibrant system.
Ensuring Greater Minnesota maintained its 20% share of Legacy funds remains a top priority for GMPT. Educating the many new members of both committees regarding why Greater Minnesota deserves its share was the biggest hurdle this session. Committee members had respectful questions about how the funding was used, but there was no serious challenge to the split, and the final version of the bill included 20% of the Parks and Trails funds to be distributed as recommended by the Commission.
Another challenge that we often face with respect to the distribution of Legacy funds is special requests by legislators for funding for a pet project that was not included in the Commission’s recommendations. We are concerned about such proposals because they would siphon funding from cities or counties that have followed the process and are awaiting those funds. Such a request happened again this year, but we were able to work with legislators and the Commission to direct that funding request to the Commission process rather than skipping the line through special legislation.
A more concerning issue arose when the Legacy bill was debated on the Senate floor. Senator Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) introduced an amendment that would bar the use of Legacy funds on any project that had used or would use eminent domain. Although eminent domain is rarely used on member projects, removing that tool could make some projects difficult to complete. GMPT’s lobbyist met with the conference committee members charged with deciding whether to include this provision in the final bill. Working with allies, we persuaded them to drop this provision.
An unexpected proposal surfaced in the House’s version of the Legacy bill—the inclusion of Native American Tribes as potential recipients of Legacy Funds. Although the Commission did not request this change, nor was it included in any legislation that was heard, we did not object. In the future, Tribal governments may seek funding through the Commission using the same process that local governments in Greater Minnesota follow.
Another top goal for GMPT has been to obtain a permanent source of funding for the Commission outside of the Legacy funds (see our handout here). Our organization is very supportive of the Commission and its work, but it is currently funded out of Greater Minnesota’s 20% Legacy share. Given the inequity in funding between GMPT and those in the metropolitan area, we worked with Senator Grant Hauschild (DFL-Hermantown), Representative David Lislegard (DFL-Aurora), and a bipartisan and geographically diverse list of legislators to advance legislation (SF527/HF873) that would appropriate $1 million per biennium ($500,000 per year) to pay for the Commission’s operating costs.
Heading into the legislative session, we knew this request would be difficult to advance in the House. In the past, the Chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee has expressed his disdain for dedicating funds to Greater Minnesota on a variety of priorities, including this one. Despite support from powerful DFL legislators, the House did not grant our bill a hearing. The support in the Senate was much stronger, where we received a hearing during which multiple committee members voiced support.
Unfortunately, the state’s budget surplus largely reflected one-time savings, not ongoing funds. Therefore, the ongoing target for natural resources was very low, and the Senate was unable to include our request in its proposal. Nonetheless, as noted below, we obtained another permanent source of funding that we did not initially anticipate and will provide even more ongoing funding than this request would have produced.
GMPT recognizes that many of its members will never qualify for Legacy funding, which is why we seek and support funding for the DNR’s local parks and trails grant programs from various sources. We have been actively advocating for the inclusion of funding for these grant programs in the bill recommended by the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) and were pleased that $3.8 million was included for Local Parks, Trails, and Natural Area Grant Programs in this year’s bill. In addition, multiple member projects were also contained in the proposal.
Over the last several years, the LCCMR bill has been held up from passage due to partisan bickering. We were very pleased to see this bill move forward this year without such squabble. As the bill advanced, however, we were alerted by a GMPT member about an effort to require a 50% match for future park and trail construction projects funded by the LCCMR. Although this issue is not part of our policy agenda, we advocated against this change. The proposal moved ahead in the House, but we were able to work with the Senate to remove it from their version. The conference committee compromised on the issue and will now require a 25 % match. This result is not ideal, but the 50% match would likely have been imposed without our advocacy.
Our final legislative goal was the inclusion of funding for the DNR local parks and trails grants programs in a bonding bill. After submitting letters of support and advocating for this appropriation, we were very pleased that the House and Senate included $2 million for these programs in their final bonding bill.
Sometimes you need to seize the opportunities in front of you! GMPT did precisely that and added a new funding stream for regional parks and trails. Legislation (HF389/SF356) was introduced early in the session that would have increased the total amount of money going to recipients of Lottery-in-Lieu (LIL) funds. The Minnesota Lottery pays LIL funds to the state to compensate for sales taxes not paid on tickets. Both metropolitan parks and state parks have traditionally been recipients of these funds. Greater Minnesota does not receive those funds, so we raised our concern with the House and Senate about this disparity. We submitted letters, testified before multiple committees, and reached out to various lawmakers.
Although the House ignored our concerns, Sen. Hauschild—the author of our bill seeking funding for the Commission—stepped up to the plate. He worked with us and his colleagues to secure a permanent 1.25% of the LIL funds for regional parks and trails in Greater Minnesota. Although the amount is not as substantial as we had hoped, it is our first permanent funding source for regional parks and trails outside of Legacy funds. In recognition of this accomplishment, GMPT is presenting a special legislative award to Sen. Hauschild this fall.
APPLY FOR GRANTS TODAY!!
Thank you to our GMPT members for all your help! Because of you, we’ve been successful in advocating for all of the funds mentioned above. Now we need our members to go and take advantage of those programs! If you have needs, please take a look at the LCCMR and DNR grant programs. The grant cycle is currently closed, but the application window typically opens in January or February, so start planning your applications now! Keep in mind that with both programs, you can reach out to staff for advice and a pre-application review to ensure that your application is in good shape. Click here for that information.
Also, the GMRPTC online portal to submit applications for FY2025 Legacy grants opened on April 3 and will remain open for applications until July 31 at 11:59pm. Facilities and trails designated as regionally significant are eligible to apply for Greater Minnesota Legacy grants.
So, go out and get those grants! Now!
2023 was a great year legislatively for our organization and its members. We could not have achieved these goals without your help, so thank you to all members for your participation!
As always, if you have questions about GMPT’s legislative program, please contact Elizabeth Wefel at email@example.com.