In less than two weeks, the Minnesota Legislature will reconvene, and although the second half of the biennium is shorter, it will likely be another busy session. Because it is not a budget year, the Legislature will be focused primarily on the bonding bill and policy issues. For GMPT, we have several priorities for 2024. We would like to see more funding for the DNR’s local park and trails grant programs and will be pushing for the inclusion of such funds in the bonding bill.
The legislative session has drawn to a close, albeit a few days later than it should have. As the dust continues to settle, we want to recap how GMPT’s primary goals fared this session.
Funding for the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission
Over the last six years, the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission (GMRPTC) has played a vital role in developing a system of regional parks and trails throughout Greater Minnesota. Although making recommendations for how Legacy money should be spent is an essential component of that role, the commission provides other resources and services that go well beyond its work with Legacy money.
Since it was formed, the commission has been funded using a portion of Greater Minnesota’s 20% share of the Legacy fund. This funding source is not written into statute. Therefore, a request must be made every two years to fund the commission. This year, GMPT worked with the commission to request that general fund dollars, rather than Legacy money, be used to fund the commission. We helped craft a bill, SF 999/HF 868, authored by Sen. Carrie Ruud (R-Breezy Point) and Rep. Mike Sundin (DFL-Esko).
Although the bill received strong support when it was heard in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee and also received vocal support from rural Democrats in the House, it did not make the final omnibus bill. One of the biggest challenges we faced was that the Senate initially had a negative $57 million budget target for its environment bill, which made it challenging to obtain new funding for anything. Moreover, despite multiple efforts to persuade Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria), chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, that the commission’s work goes well beyond making recommendations on Legacy funding, he stood fast in his belief that the commission should rely on Legacy funding for its operations. With little support from the metropolitan-led House, we could not overcome the objections to this funding.
However, we successfully worked with Sen. Ruud and Rep. Leon Lillie (DFL-North St. Paul) to secure continued Legacy funding for the commission. We will continue to explore alternative funding mechanisms for the commission in the future.
Protecting Greater Minnesota’s Share of the Legacy Fund
Although Greater Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources and the metropolitan parks had agreed to preserve the 40/40/20 split of Legacy money through the 2019 legislative session, this agreement has never been put into statute. Thus, protecting Greater Minnesota’s share of funding is always a top priority along with ensuring that legislators do not siphon off any of that share to pet projects that have not been recommended by the commission. Because the agreement among the three partners expired this year, we also pushed for the creation of a task force to make recommendations on this issue in the future.
Despite the introduction of bills seeking a portion of the parks and trails Legacy fund, both Sen. Ruud and Rep. Lillie passed Legacy bills that preserved Greater Minnesota’s 20% share of the Legacy fund to be awarded in accordance with the commission’s recommendations. Sen. Ruud’s version of the bill also reconstituted the task force of the three partners to evaluate how the money should be split and to make recommendations. This task force was included in the final version of the bill that was signed into law.
Funding For Local Parks and Trails Grants Programs
Because many of the parks and trails in Greater Minnesota do not qualify for Legacy funds, one of GMPT’s top priorities has been including funding for the DNR local grant programs in as many bills as possible. This year’s omnibus environment and natural resources bill included a total of $1 million for the Outdoor Recreation Grant Program and the Local Trail Connections Program, and $3 million for local parks, trails connections and natural and scenic areas.
Problematic Funding Requirement Pulled From Legacy Bill
In addition to advocating for funding and other positive outcomes, the GMPT occasionally has to push back against legislation that can harm our members. This year that came in the form of an amendment from Rep. Steve Green (R-Fosston) to the Legacy bill. On its face, it appeared that the amendment would implement the Office of the Legislative Auditor’s recommendation that Legacy funds should not be used to supplant previous forms of funding. However, it was written in such a way that it would have prohibited Legacy funds from being used for projects that had received funding from any different sources over the last five years. GMPT worked with Sen. Ruud and Rep. Lillie to ensure that the language was dropped from the final bill.
Thank you to everyone who responded to advocacy alerts, reached out to legislators and provided valuable feedback this session. Although we didn’t reach all of our legislative goals this year, we had several important victories and we are well positioned for the future.
If you have any questions regarding our legislative activities, please contact our lobbyist, Elizabeth Wefel, at email@example.com.