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Gov. Pawlenty vetoes Star Lakes funding

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, listens late last month to debate over Senate Democrats' bill funding health and human services programs. Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Friday line-item vetoed her measure for grant funds to lake associations through the Star Lake program. Pioneer Photo/Scott Wente

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's lone line-item veto of Outdoors Legacy Act funding was Sen. Mary Olson's Star Lakes grant program.

"I'm very disappointed," Olson, DFL-Bemidji, said Saturday. "I'm disappointed personally just because this was something I've spent a lot of time working on, but I'm most disappointed for all the lake association members."

Olson says that "it just seems like such a slap in the face to lake associations who've volunteered so much of their time and then do so much for their lakes."

Pawlenty late Friday night signed into law the omnibus cultural and outdoor resources funding bill, which starts raising money July 1 when the constitutional amendment kicks in that raises the state's sales tax 0.0375 percent for outdoors and cultural heritage programs.

Expected to raise about $400 million for everything from Clean Water Legacy Program funds to clean lakes, rivers and streams, to funding for public broadcasting, the Outdoor Heritage Fund is to spend $69.5 million in fiscal 2010 and $18 million in fiscal 2011.

Pawlenty red-lined a $200,000 item -- $100,000 each year -- to the Star Lakes program which Olson kicked off in 2008 to improve lake quality by recognizing active lake associations that put in place lake management programs.

The $200,000 was for grants to the Star Lakes Board.

"This board was created with a $100,000 appropriation as a pilot program last year," Pawlenty said in his veto message. "At the time, supporters of the legislation indicated the need for was one-time money only. If additional funding is needed for this new board, it should come from sources other than constitutionally dedicated dollars."

The Republican governor said that "such dollars should be used for projects, not process and bureaucracy."

"That tiny little bit of money in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars that we're spending on cleaning up water, it's really hard to understand because this was money that was intended to multiply itself many times over by encouraging and rewarding volunteer efforts," Olson said.

The vetoed provision would have provided funds to a "pilot program to focus on engaging citizen participation and fostering local partnerships by increasing citizen involvement in water quality enhancement by designating star lakes and rivers."

The Star Lakes Board was to include information on the results of the pilot program in its next biennial report. The second-year grants would only be available if the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources determines that the money granted in the first year furthered the water quality goals in the Star Lakes program.

"I thought I heard the governor in the past say that we need to engage volunteerism, engage our citizens, and try to maximize resources from the private sector as much as possible, and this certainly does that," the Bemidji Democrat said.

Instead of using the initial $100,000 set-up monies to hire an executive director, volunteers have served on the Star Lakes Board and worked as team, she said.

"Local biologist Dann Siems is on the Star Lakes Board and has donated a tremendous amount of his personal time," Olson said. "The Star Lakes Board has incorporated itself, and rather than hiring an executive, they've actually donated their time, anywhere from mayors to city council members to people like Dann Siems."

After a reporter read Pawlenty's veto message to her, Olson said that "obviously the governor isn't very well informed. ... It sounds just like he's parroting some of what was said in opposition to this from a couple of state agencies."

The state agencies are in competition for the same dollars to be given as grants, she said. The Star Lakes Board as more stringent requirements for grants, however.

"Under the Star Lakes concept, you actually have to meet some pretty stringent requirements before you would be considered eligible for a grant, whereas those requirements aren't necessarily in place to the same degree for grants through an agency," Olson said.

The Star Lakes grants are probably the most outcome-oriented of grants for water quality management, she said.

"I know that there were some agencies that just didn't like the idea that there was an independent board that was going to be administering this," Olson said.

Pawlenty was also incorrect in saying the first $100,000 was one-time money for a pilot program, she said. "There was no indication it was just going to be a pilot program; in fact, the whole idea was to get the board up and running."

Language establishing the board specifically gives it authority over a fund that can include both government and private resources, she said. Any government entity or otherwise can donate to the fund to be used for grants, she added.

"The governor didn't know what he was talking about," Olson said. "I think his agencies are threatened by anything that isn't under their control in some circumstances."

She hopes the veto isn't an agency reaction to another bill she's carrying that didn't get thoroughly vetted this session but will be back.

The bill calls for a merger of state agencies handling natural resources into a one-stop operation for citizens who seek permits and licenses. The bill originally set a deadline for a citizens task force determine what that new alignment may look like, but it was removed in committee.

"My other bill specifically has language for engaging the public and working with public volunteers, as well as being more consumer friendly," Olson said. "I've been pushing a little bit, so maybe this is a push back."

The Star Lakes program was widely supported in the Senate, but the House had some misgivings, Olson said. She hopes to bring some House environmental committee members to meet with local lake associations.

"It also helps that Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) is vice chairman," she said.

Olson's bill to reorganize natural resources management will see informal committee meetings over the interim, Olson said. Those efforts will be spearheaded by Senate Environment Committee Chairman Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley.

"We want to reach out the communities, reach out to the agencies and invite them to have a discussion," Olson said. Chaudhary "said this issue is not going to go away."

"The public wants us to be working on trying to make government more efficient," she added.