DFL Sen. Mary Olson talks with township group about upcoming 2010 session
The 2009 Minnesota Legislative session, difficult by anyone's measure, will seem like a piece of cake compared with 2010. There will be more budget cuts, the outgoing governor just predicted he will leave the state a $7 billion budget shortfall b...
The 2009 Minnesota Legislative session, difficult by anyone's measure, will seem like a piece of cake compared with 2010.
There will be more budget cuts, the outgoing governor just predicted he will leave the state a $7 billion budget shortfall by 2012 and partisan food fights will break out on the chamber floors with all the candidates vying to replace Tim Pawlenty.
"We made some very painful decisions," said Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, addressing a regional group of township officers Wednesday night in Walker.
And she admitted taxpayers are getting anxious and cranky.
"When money is tight everything is scrutinized," she said. "People always say, 'There has to be another way.'"
Olson thanked the officers for their dedication and service. She focused her remarks on the upcoming session and on clarifying the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment Minnesota voters approved last fall.
"There are some significant deficits coming this year," Olson predicted. "It's hard to imagine how we're going to cut more money to local governments."
Olson sponsored legislation last session to mandate a form of governmental self-examination, making state agencies and recipients of government funds operate more efficiently, eliminating redundancy and performing internal belt tightening ahead of mandated cuts. It garnered lukewarm support.
Most of the revenues that go through the state are "pass through" monies, going back out to counties, cities and state agencies, she said. Actual operational expenses for the government to run are relatively low, she added.
"Whenever you have a crisis environment things get cut," Olson said, but this couldn't happen "at a worse time."
Olson said she is concerned the political climate will not be conducive to a productive session in 2010 at a time when it's most needed.
"With everyone running for governor it will probably be a real partisan session," she said. Lawmakers from both parties have announced their intentions to run for the governor's seat.
But it was the environment, one of Olson's mainstay issues, that triggered the most questions from her audience.
"Why are we spending all this money on the environment when we need it for the elderly, for our children?" one officer asked.
Olson explained that the voters amended the state constitution last fall to set up "a 30-year stream of money" for various clean water, recreational, environmental and arts purposes.
The funds, from a sales tax of three-eighths of 1 percent that began accumulating July 1, are segregated in four separate funds, Olson said. Those funds are defined by law and aren't subject to change, she said.
Another officer asked about creating special taxation districts to clean up lakes and wondered if it would be necessary in light of the Legacy funds.
"How many times are we gonna pay?" he asked.
Olson said she has heard of assessments "watershed district by watershed district" to clean up polluted lakes, "but it's going to be a few years before we see that money."
In 2009 the Legislature put together the mechanism for oversight of the fund, but the Legacy monies "are not supposed to backfill agency monies," Olson said.
Agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources will not be direct beneficiaries of the fund.
She said taxing to clean up lakes within a county or township should be "a local decision."
One officer suggested a boat or boat trailer tax to pay for Eurasian watermilfoil or zebra mussel cleanup.
"I can't even tell you all the proposals I've heard," Olson said of her constituents and fellow lawmakers.
Olson urged preventive measures, slowing down the spread of invasive species. If residents can keep lakes healthy now, make them "invasive-proof" and take care of "specific spot problems," their lakes should stay clean.
Educational efforts are the key to keeping lakes healthy, she maintained.
Last session Olson introduced a "Star Lakes Program" that would reward lake associations for cleaning up their own waters, "rather than having a government employee doing it."
Pawlenty drew a line item veto through the program's request for funds last spring, however, so three lake associations volunteered to be part of a pilot program that will form the basis of a request for Legislative funds this session. The program aimed to "foster broader citizen participation through financial incentives, educational efforts, and public-private partnerships."
One officer questioned why schools weren't getting more involved in the educational aspects of promoting a cleaner lake environment. Olson encouraged the idea.