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John Myers column: Invest Minnesota's budget surplus in our outdoor future

With plenty of cash to go around, it's time to expand and repair parks, wildlife areas and boat landings.

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John Myers.
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So by now you’ve surely read that the Minnesota Legislature has some extra cash, an estimated $17.6 billion more than they need to balance the state budget over the next two years.

First off, that’s a great thing. That mean’s Minnesota’s economy is rolling along better than economic experts thought possible. So far the gloomsday predictions of a recession haven’t come true. More Minnesotans are working, and more are paying taxes, and that’s why state coffers are plump.

“The golden opportunity that we have to make Minnesota an even better and fairer and more inclusive and more prosperous state is there,” said DFL Gov. Tim Walz. Legislative Republicans said the growing record surplus is a sign the state needs tax relief. Incoming House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth called the surplus "jaw-dropping."

Now it’s up to the Legislature and the governor, who go back to work Jan. 3 at the Capitol, to make a plan: What to do with all that money? Voters in November put the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in full control state government for 2023 and it’s presumed they will be able to agree on a plan.

But because I’m a helpful guy, I have some suggestions for them: Invest in the outdoors. Invest in conservation. Invest in our future.

I liken the state’s situation to our family’s humble budget and home. Our usual budget allows us to pay our taxes, keep the lawn mowed and maybe even paint the place. But, if we had an extra dollop of cash land in our laps, we could afford to expand the kitchen, add that family room or even put a new roof on.

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It’s time for the state to put a new roof on.

Now’s the time to develop a state fund to buy out deer farms across Minnesota and then shut them down, a move wildlife biologists say will greatly help to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease. (A previous generation of lawmakers did that with commercial fishermen on Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake and the fishing improved so much that those are now world-class sport angling destinations.)

Now is the time to expand state-managed areas to access fishing and hunting, to keep land undeveloped and open to the public — habitat for birds, wildlife and fish — that otherwise will be bought up in the frenzy for recreational property or plowed-under by the lure of high corn prices. Now is the time to invest in renewable energy.

Earlier this year, when our state government was still divided between Republicans and Democrats, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources asked lawmakers for an extra $316 million more than their usual budget for various projects around the state that don’t get money from fishing or hunting licenses. (it wasn't that big an ask considering the state has an annual budget of $24 billion.) But, like most everything else important, the request died when Republicans and DFLers couldn't agree. Virtually nothing got done at the Capitol in 2022. That should change in 2023.

Lake Vermilion State park
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has previously proposed using $12 million from the state’s construction/bonding bill to build out Lake Vermilion State Park, one of several outdoor-related issues at the Capitol in recent years.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR

Lake Vermilion State Park was a great addition, more than a decade ago, pushed by a bipartisan coalition of Iron Range DFL lawmakers and a Republican governor. But it still needs a visitor's center. So build it now. The state’s fish hatcheries are falling apart, as are many roads, bridges, bathrooms and buildings in parks and forests.

Boat ramps across the state are crumbling, thanks to heavy use and floods and age. Much like parks, boat landings saw a big increase in traffic during the pandemic-fueled push by Minnesotans to get outdoors. That should remind us why we live here, and should remind us why we need to keep those amenities alive and well.

Our kids.

There will be enormous pressure on lawmakers and the governor to give the money back to the people, and there are all sorts of ways to do that. One is to write a rebate check to everyone in Minnesota. It’s a one-time proposition. Businesses also will scream for their taxes to be lowered. Homeowners have seen huge jumps in property taxes, too, not necessarily because local governments are spending that much more but because their homes are worth so much more.

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When it comes time to expand, add or fix up Minnesota state parks, our fish hatcheries, our wildlife management areas, we are usually told that there are too many other pressing needs and not enough money to go around. But that’s not true now. Yes there are other needs — highways, schools, property tax relief — but they can be funded with the usual means.

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Minnesota’s extra money should go for something extra, an investment to be passed onto future generations. Don't send me a check so I can buy a giant flat-screen television or take a vacation. That’s happened before, back when Jesse Ventura was governor. Lawmakers and the big bald guy agreed to send checks to everyone to dole out the extra cash. The “Jesse checks” were of course popular. But does anyone remember now how we spent them?

Now imagine if, 25 years ago, the Jesse checks had instead gone to build out and repair state parks, buy conservation easements for timber lands or pay farmers to keep their most sensitive fields from eroding?

Imagine if, instead of worrying about their next election, state lawmakers worried about the next generation?

And the ones after that.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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