School trust land reform bill advances in House

Although Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Tom Landwehr styled the trust land legislation as creating a bureaucratic “quagmire,” a House committee today (March 6) on a strong voted passed a bill that could dramatically alter how the state

Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, gestures while answering a question during a House hearing today (March 6) on school trust land management. Seated beside Dittrich, a longtime trust land reform advocate, is Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell, trust land reform House bill author. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

oversees its 2.5 million acres of school trust land.

Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell, with Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, at his side, saw his school trust land reform legislation pass the House Government Operations and Elections Committee on an 11 to 2 vote.

“I think he’s going to want to talk to us,” said a smiling Dittrich after the vote of having talks with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

O’Driscoll’s bill would scrap the current Permanent School Fund Advisory Committee and create a five-member permanent school fund board to oversee, administer and manage school trust land.

These duties would be taken over from the DNR on July 1, 2014.

Additionally, the legislation would create a 12-member legislative permanent school fund commission to review legislation affecting the trust land and advise the board.

Dittrich and other critics of current school trust land management policies argue the trust lands — originally when Minnesota became a state in 1858 setting aside two sections in each township to help finance local schools — have been woefully under performing in terms of generating dollars for the state’s school children.

They express chagrin that some 86,000 acres of school trust land encapsulated within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area remain isolated after decades of talks with the federal government.

Beyond this, some lawmakers, such as House Government Operations and Elections Committee Chairwoman Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, argue an inherent conflict of interest exists within the DNR between conservation and exacting the highest returns possible for the school children on the trust land.

Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr argued that taking away management of the school trust land from his agency was a mistake. He argued the reform legislation would simply create more ineffectual government. (Photo of T.W. Budig)

“It’s not your fault,” Peppin told Landwehr of the perceived conflict of interest.

Things looked differently to Landwehr.

The commissioner argued that rather at odds, the DNR’s conservation practices and fiduciary duties to the school trust land go hand-in-hand.

Only well-managed resources yield their highest financial potentials, he argued.

Moreover, Landwehr criticized the legislation as creating a layer of bureaucratic fat, one lacking the DNR’s land management expertise and requiring the hiring of additional staff.

As for the stranded trust land in the Boundary Waters, Landwehr said the DNR was “actively involved” in discussions with the U.S. Forest Service.

And Landwehr pointed to lawmakers themselves as the source of problems in managing the school trust land.

For instance, the most valuable  trust land — much of it being so remote as not within ten miles of an improved road — is shoreline, he said.

Yet the DNR is required to first get legislative approval before selling any of the prized shoreline, Landwehr explained.

“I think the bill takes us in the wrong direction,” he said.

Landwehr’s sentiments were echoed in a letter to the committee by environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, North Star Chapter and Audubon Minnesota,, arguing that Landwehr, through a commissioner’s order and other actions, had shown a serious effort at improving school trust land management.

In the letter, the groups conceded that “legitimate questions” have been raised in the past about the DNR’s management of the trust lands.

Concerns were also voiced by a spokesman for mining interests, arguing the perceived increase in bureaucracy the legislation would bring made it more difficult for business.

But Dittrich countered by arguing that opposition to the legislation came from groups well served by the status quo.

“I challenge them to do that,” she said of recommending a better approach.

While some Democrats on the committee, such as Rep. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, criticized the legislation, other Democrats supported it.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, styled the bill rationale and sensible.

“For now, I think the bill is a strong one,” he said.

Peppin, too, expressed support.

Indeed, she questioned Landwehr’s assertion the legislation would require additional state employees.

He seemed to assume, she argued, that the DNR couldn’t get by with fewer.

But Landwehr argued DNR forestry staff is already lean — just one staffer for every 20,000 acres of forest.

House Government Operations and Elections Committee Chairwoman Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, argued the DNR had a basic conflict of interest with the school trust land. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

The committee passed the bill and sent it to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Dittrich believes from Ways and Means the legislation could go the House floor.

She cautioned against expecting immediate increases in school funding should the proposed governance changes becomes law.

That will take some time, she explained.

But Dittrich also said she would be first to say to go back to the old model if the proposed change didn’t work better.

“I’m optimistic,” she said of the legislation’s chance of success.

Simply reaching the Ways and Means Committee is a high water mark for the bill in the House, she explained.

Similar legislation in the Senate is carried by Sen. Benjamin Kruse, Brooklyn Park.

A number of school organizations, including the Minnesota School Board Association and the Anoka-Hennepin School District Parent Legislative Team, sent letters to the House committee in support of the bill.

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