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New sales tax goes to outdoor uses

ST. PAUL - The environment and outdoors scored big in an otherwise rough Minnesota legislative session.

A $4.6 billion budget deficit prompted spending cuts to most budget areas, including agencies dealing with the environment. But those budget reductions to ongoing state programs were overshadowed by approval of the first plan for spending constitutionally protected dollars on the outdoors, water cleanup projects and parks.

The funds will be provided by a voter-approved 0.375 percent sales tax increase. The state will begin collecting the revenue July 1, lending urgency to the funding plan's passage this year.

"This is the one glimmering star of the legislative session," said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who served on a panel that recommended spending for wildlife habitat and conservation projects.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the bill into law late Friday.

Those differing proposals complicated negotiations and delayed an agreement until just hours before the end of the legislative session.

Lawmakers did pass other outdoors legislation. Pawlenty signed into law a $360 million budget for environment and energy programs. The budget cuts state agency spending by up to 10 percent.

The budget package included spending for clean-water assessments of lakes, rivers and streams, and a prohibition on the sale of state recreation land in order to shore up the state budget.

Lawmakers and lobbyists gave far more attention to the dedicated funding package, which totaled nearly $397 million. The money will be split four ways:

-- $69 million to wildlife habitat, forestry and conservation projects affecting 77 counties next year.

-- $151 million to water quality assessment, monitoring and clean-up projects over two years.

-- $65 million to state and regional parks and trails over two years.

-- $93 million to arts and cultural programs over two years.

The outdoors funding plan has transparency, said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, one of the dedicated funding negotiators.

Murphy said the challenge for lawmakers who put together the first dedicated funding package was to "start with something in state government that was absolutely brand new and to create something that would work for the people of the state for the next 25 years and generations to come after that."

Ingebrigtsen, who serves on an outdoor heritage council that recommends the habitat and conservation projects, said the selected projects - including forest acquisition, wetland improvements and prairie preservation - are based on science and should improve the state's wildlife population.

"We've got 24 more years of this and it's going to make a difference," he said.

Lawmakers made other smaller outdoors, fishing and hunting changes.

The growing Let's Go Fishing program will receive $300,000 over the two-year budget period to promote fishing among youths and the elderly.

Another fishing provision allows Minnesota residents age 90 or older to fish without a license.

A more controversial law change will allows people to transport an unloaded and uncased firearm for hunting or shooting range purposes. It is prohibited, however, in Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka counties.

A few proposals important to environmentalists did not make the cut this year. A plan to make the state's vehicle emissions standards tougher failed to gain traction and the state took only a small step toward fighting global warming, said Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. Federal emissions policies will take the place of a need for tougher state standards, he said, but environmental groups may push next year for more legislation aimed at reducing the state's contribution to global warming.

There was no action this year on a proposal to address potential environmental problems linked to sulfide mining, Morse added.

"Overall, it's just fair," he said of environmental issues handed during the session. "The money's good. The policy really got dropped."

Other outdoors items lawmakers approved:

-- A constitutionally dedicated outdoors funding advisory panel is renamed the "Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council" after former Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls and the late Sen. Dallas Sams of Staples.

-- Residents can fish without a license within a state park

-- Off-highway vehicle users who damage a wetland are guilty of a gross misdemeanor. That includes all-terrain vehicles, trucks and motorcycles.

-- The state wild rice harvesting season is from Aug. 15 to Sept. 30.

-- All-terrain vehicles can use road shoulders to avoid environmentally sensitive ditches.