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State debating pros and cons of purchasing more land

ST. PAUL -- To buy or not to buy, that is at least part of the question.

Separate reports by the Minnesota Legislative auditor and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources question the state's ability to fund the upkeep of land it already owns. So lawmakers are debating whether Minnesota should buy more.

Citing the state's $5 billion budget deficit and the DNR's shortfall for land management costs, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, authored a bill that would prohibit the state from acquiring additional land unless it sells off an equal amount, with sales proceeds going to the state general fund.

The December 2010 DNR report concluded that the state manages its land and water resources effectively but also has a gap in funding land management and upkeep.

"The more land you own the more liability that comes along with it," Drazkowski said. "We cannot escape the fact that it costs money, it takes taxpayer resources to properly manage the lands that we have and certainly the lands we buy in the future."

Drazkowski has support from some local governments, in part because state ownership removes those parcels of land from property tax rolls.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, opposes Drazkowski's "no net gain" bill, but added that the state should be more selective in its land purchases.

"We have not been diligent in our efforts to look at strategic land sales, especially across northern Minnesota," he said, citing counties where more than 80 percent of the land is government-owned.

McNamara, chairman of a House environmental committee, has proposed setting aside about $5.6 million from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council's current year land acquisition budget for long-term management to help fill the maintenance gap on land the state currently owns.

Outdoors groups are not in favor of limiting the state's ability to buy land. Prices are low, which provides Minnesota with a great opportunity to invest in its trails and parks, said Brett Feldman, executive director of the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota.

"They are being compensated," Feldman said.

For jurisdictions concerned about losing property tax revenue, Feldman said the state does provide payments in lieu of taxes when it buys the land. The legislative auditor's report indicated those payments were generally more than adequate at replacing lost property taxes, although it also acknowledging the state needed more information to be certain.

Across the state, there are gaps in the park and trail system that can be filled by buying or acquiring easements with available funds, Feldman said, adding that "there is more land out there that needs to be protected."

Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said he wants to seek a middle ground. Drazkowski's bill makes sense in northern Minnesota, where state land ownership is high, he said.

But the bill might be too limiting in other parts of the state, where there exists land it makes sense for the state to acquire, he added.

Dill said he wants to see compromise between the Drazkowski proposal and another bill proposed by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, that would require the state find replacement hunting land for any parcels of hunting land it sells.

The bills have been held over in the environmental committee for further discussion.