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Outdoors spending plans taking shape

ST. PAUL -- An influx of dedicated state tax revenue leads outdoors enthusiasts to believe a logjam of Minnesota natural resources projects will begin to free up this year.

State lawmakers are completing work on two outdoors spending packages that would pump tens of millions of dollars into conservation projects around the state.

Both are paid for outside the traditional state budgeting pro-cess and are protected by the Minnesota Constitution. Environmental re-search is the focus of one pot of money, wild-life habitat res-toration and water cleanup projects the em-phasis of the other.

Together, the programs are expected to spend roughly $165 million over the next year. Projects range from soil surveys in northeastern Minnesota to invasive earthworm detection around the state and from the restoration of western Minnesota prairies to the reduction of lake and river pollution.

In the coming weeks lawmakers plan to finalize the first spending plan that will be funded by a statewide sales tax increase, which voters approved in last November's election.

The constitutional amendment, which raises the state sales tax 0.375 percent beginning July 1, will fund habitat preservation, water-cleanup projects as well as park improvements and arts initiatives. The habitat preservation and water-cleanup portions are expected to spend $140 million next year.

In addition, legislators are near final approval of the latest plan from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, an advisory panel that annually recommends how to spend state lottery proceeds targeted to the outdoors.

That commission's latest proposal includes $26 million in land, water and wildlife projects geared toward research.

Officials involved with the proposals said each pot of taxpayer money has its own purpose, but over time the two could be coordinated, such as by conducting research with the lottery proceeds and later funding a project in response to the research with the sales tax revenue.

Still, they claim the spending proposals will not be duplicative.

"I'm trying to keep them both separate," said Jim Vickerman, a state senator from Tracy and co-chairman of the legislative-citizen commission. "I want to be sure we just don't jump back and forth, because we're limited."

"I think they have to stay on separate tracks," added fellow commission member Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker.

Proceeds next year from the voter-approved sales tax increase include $69 million that will be steered toward wildlife and fish habitat and forest preservation projects. The projects were recommended by the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council, a group of appointed citizens and lawmakers.

Council member Wayne Enger of Perham said the panel, in its first year, focused on habitat projects that are ready to be implemented. Funding recipients may include regional watershed districts, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the state Department of Natural Resources.

Council members are aware that the public will scrutinize how they recommend the tax dollars be spent, Enger said. Lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who ultimately sign off on the spending plan, ought to recognize that the projects fulfill the objective of restoring and protecting land and wildlife habitat, he said.