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Environmental plan aids some counties

Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, was among negotiators on an environment and energy spending bill. He is pictured talking with Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick. Pioneer Photo/Scott Wente

ST. PAUL - Minnesota counties with lots of state-owned land may like an environment spending plan that protects state payments they receive.

Counties cannot impose a property tax levy on state land, so the state makes cash payments under a compromise plan developed by a House-Senate conference committee that both legislative chambers debated Monday night. To help balance the state budget, Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed reducing those payments by 20 percent during the next two-year budget cycle.

Minnesota House and Senate negotiators took many of Pawlenty's environment and energy funding recommendations, but not the one to drop state payments in lieu of taxes.

It is just a fraction of total environment spending, but the $9 million in proposed cuts would have created a financial problem for counties expecting that money to pay for basic services, said Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids.

"That'd be disastrous," he said Monday.

Saxhaug, a conference committee member, said northern Minnesota counties with lots of state forest land would have suffered the most from those reductions.

But Republicans leaving a late-Monday afternoon meeting with Pawlenty warned that their fellow Republican governor may veto some items from the overall energy and environmental funding bill to bring its total cost down.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said he will help Pawlenty find line-item vetoes to lower the bill's cost. Otherwise, there appeared few Republican problems with the measure.

Overall, the negotiators' finance package proposes $737 million for environment and natural resources programs. That includes nearly $489 million for the Natural Resources Department and $180 million for the Pollution Control Agency.

The bill cuts spending to the DNR by more than 6 percent, when compared to what programs were projected to cost, said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, the House environment finance leader.

In addition, the bill provides $61 million to a variety of energy and telecommunications programs. Rep. Bill Hilty, the House energy finance chairman, said negotiators accepted most of Pawlenty's energy spending recommendations.

Energy and environment programs are funded with general tax dollars as well as special funds dedicated targeted to certain outdoors programs. Pawlenty and lawmakers propose new fees and fee increases to soften spending reductions.

The bill maintains $15 million for programs to assess and monitor water quality in Minnesota lakes, rivers and streams.

That will allow funding from a new, voter-approved sales tax increase to be directed to water cleanup projects, not to water-quality assessment, Wagenius said.

"That's a very important part of this bill," she said, because voters approved the statewide sales tax increase last year to pay for water cleanup projects, not to cover state agencies' annual water monitoring.

The bill also:

- Imposes a new fee on mining permit holders of up to $75,000 a year.

- Requires non-Minnesota residents to obtain a $20 permit before operating an all-terrain vehicle on state trails.

- Creates a Natural Resources Department gift certificate to be used to purchase licenses and permits.

- Offers $300,000 to the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources and Research Institute to study the state's potential for geothermal energy.

- Provides $10,000 to the Leech Lake Indian Reservation for upper Mississippi River work.

- Bans state environmental agencies from using money to pay salaries for staff in the governor's office. Lawmakers complain Pawlenty dips into agency budgets to pay staff that deal with those agencies.

Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.