Guest Column: House Legacy bill allows for land purchases

Published 11:04 pm Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Guest Column by Bob Gunther

Recently, Dick Herfindahl penned a column discussing a House bill that allocates more than $500 million in Legacy Amendment funding over the next two years.

As chairman of the Legacy funding committee, let me first express my gratitude that our bill was approved on a bipartisan, unanimous 131-0 vote in the House.

Email newsletter signup

It’s good legislation: More than $100 million restores and protects Minnesota’s water; $22 million provides buffer aid to counties; and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program investments will help us leverage $350 million in federal funds.

It also contains necessary reforms. The bill creates a 5 percent reserve within each fund, protecting the health and integrity of the funds if the forecast changes. It also directs the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to focus on enhancements of current land instead of the purchasing of new land, which is needed to ensure there’s more accountability in how funds are spent.

Herfindahl and others have claimed that this bill will discourage, if not outright stop future purchases of land in the state of Minnesota. These allegations are simply false.

Bob Gunther

The House legislation still allows the state to acquire significant land. While we made some changes to the Lessard-Sams recommendations to the bill, it still has the opportunity to purchase nearly 10,000 acres of land with roughly $30 million.

And as we debate Minnesota’s land purchases, let’s provide some context. The state of Minnesota owns 8.5 million acres of land. The federal government owns another 3.4 million acres. That means roughly one-fourth of the land within our borders already sits in the hands of government — and this does not include land that is owned by nonprofits. In the United States, Minnesota ranks fourth in terms of state land ownership.

Since 2009, Minnesota has purchased an average of 10,000 acres a year with Legacy money. Once the state owns it, the county of origin loses its ability to collect taxes on it. Who makes up the financial difference? Home county property owners through higher taxes.

To me, if Legacy funds are used to buy land and remove it from county control, then those same funds should be used to maintain the full property tax obligations so local taxpayers are held harmless.

According to law, Outdoor Heritage Funds “may be spent only to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife.” Nowhere in the Constitutional language does it say funding must be used for state land purchases.

Folks can disagree with the priorities brought forward by the House Legacy Committee this session if they wish, but it is simply incorrect to suggest that the House is attempting to limit your public land hunting opportunities — especially when one-fourth of the state is already owned by government and money was approved in this year’s bill to purchase even more land.

State Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, is the chairman of the Minnesota House Legacy Funding Finance Committee.