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Minnesota Legislature: Outdoor bills leave existing parks, new one in question

ST. PAUL -- Plans for the development of Lake Vermilion State Park and the fate of two dozen existing parks could be at stake as the Minnesota House and Senate begin negotiating outdoors spending.

Some fear that Republican-written outdoors funding bills the two legislative bodies passed will result in parks closing, with some saying parks could close due to budget-balancing cuts.

Debate in recent weeks has set Republicans who want to trim government against Democrats who prefer to preserve as many programs as possible.

"Your side of the aisle is constantly defending the status quo," Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, told Democrats. "We are actually asking our state government to do what our businesses do."

House and Senate bills provide funds for fighting aquatic invasive species and chronic wasting disease while allocating about $200 million in state tax revenues and more than $50 million in lottery funds toward the environment during the next two years.

The bills appropriate millions more for game and fish projects, forest management investments, acquisition of land for state parks and trails and for soil and water cleanup statewide.

But among the most contentious issues as the Senate and House debated their bills came on how the Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency would deal with budget cuts.

The DNR testified double-digit cuts could force staffing and program reductions at up to 26 state parks. And the DNR and PCA both say lack of funds could prevent them from fulfilling requirements passed earlier in the session to speed up permitting.

The House and Senate addressed potential park closures differently.

The Senate cut $3 million dedicated to moving forward on Vermilion park, which was approved last year, and shifted the money to keeping other state parks open.

"The closing of parks is not going to happen," said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, and chair of the Senate environment committee.

The House left funding for Vermilion in its bill, instead passing an amendment requiring the DNR to keep its parks open and to find other solutions to possible shortfalls.

"I don't think they need to close any parks," said Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar. "I think this is a threat the DNR is using to complain about our fiscally responsible bill."

Neither solution left everyone happy.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, lamented the Senate's decision to postpone building Vermilion. "We need to actually follow through," he said.

Brett Feldman, executive director of the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota, said even if state parks remain open, services will be cut and visitor experiences will suffer.

"The impacts of these cuts are going to be devastating," he said. "It is one thing to say the physical park is open. If the campgrounds are closed, the buildings are locked, the programming is eliminated ... you get what you pay for."

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said the cuts are tough, but necessary for bridging a statewide $5 billion budget shortfall. He argued that the DNR and PCA cuts in tax proceeds were largely offset with funds from other accounts.

That explanation also caused frustration among some Democrats, who said Republicans reached into lottery proceeds meant to provide additional funding for the environment to replace funds typically allocated from the state taxes.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, continued her ongoing criticism of Republican lawmakers for shifting lottery proceeds away from projects recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources in favor of projects Republicans said were more in tune with current legislative priorities.

"It is flat wrong and it is not being honest to Minnesotans," she said.

McNamara, who chairs the House environment committee, said members did the best they could to set priorities while living within their means.

"In these tough times this is a budget that brings forward the priorities of the Legislature," McNamara said.

Andrew Tellijohn is a Twin Cities freelance writer working for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.