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Outdoors issues may hinge on funding deal

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outdoors Farmington, 55024
Farmington Minnesota P.O. Box 192 / 312 Oak St. 55024

ST. PAUL -- Proposed fishing regulation changes afloat in the Minnesota Legislature could get tangled in an end-of-session fight over an advisory council that would recommend outdoors funding decisions if voters approve a ballot measure this fall.

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Plans to allow anglers to fish open water with two lines - as is allowed for ice fishing - and to create a new discounted fishing license meant to promote catch-and-release angling are among natural resource measures before lawmakers with about two weeks remaining in the session.

However, at least one senator said those measures and others could be in jeopardy if lawmakers do not agree to create a legislative-citizens panel that would recommend how to spend new tax dollars should voters this November approve a constitutional amendment dedicating a sales tax increase to outdoors and arts programs.

"There is a need for sportsmen to know, when they're voting in November, that they will have a strong say in how the money will be spent," said Satveer Chaudhary, a Fridley Democrat who leads the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

The Minnesota Senate approved an environment bill with a key provision establishing a council that would recommend what outdoors and arts projects get funded if the ballot measure passed.

A similar plan has not been advanced in the House. Rep. David Dill, the top House member on game and fish issues, said he is frustrated with some interest groups that have not done enough to make it clear to the public that a panel of lawmakers and citizens will not decide how the new tax dollars would be spent.

"There's a very clear idea of how it's going to be spent - the Legislature is going to spend it," said Dill, DFL-Crane Lake.

Dill said he and a few House Democrats are working on an alternative to the Senate's proposed Lessard-Heritage Enhancement Council.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, has talked to many House members about whether there is a need to set up a body to distribute money that would flow in if voters decide to raise the sales tax to fund outdoors and arts programs.

Some groups are concerned that they would have little say in how the money is split up.

"We had thought that initially it made sense to see what happened with the (November) vote on the constitutional amendment," Kelliher said Friday.

"I think it has become more clear that there needs to be reassurance to groups that are concerned with conservation and sporting issues - hunting and fishing - that there we give some acknowledgement of their participation in recommendations. I think a lot of people in the House still have an issue with that group possibly appropriating dollars. I think that is a very reasonable debate to have," she added.

Kelliher said she expects the issue to be resolved before lawmakers go home by May 19. "I think we are going to make our very best attempt."

Ken Martin, campaign director for the pro-amendment group Vote Yes, said his group is focused on passing the ballot measure and is "somewhat agnostic" on the related governance issues, including formation of an advisory council.

"Our perspective is, 'Look, this is on the ballot. There's no turning back and we have to get this passed,'" Martin said.

While the House and Senate agree on many minor fishing, hunting and environmental provisions, they have staked out different positions on some issues most noticeable to the public.

One concept many legislators support is creating a conservation fishing license. Anglers could purchase a fishing license at a discounted rate, provided their possession limit is decreased.

"In a voluntary manner it's promoting a catch-and-release culture," Chaudhary said.

House Democrats favor the two-line angling provision, but the Senate did not include that in its bill. Dill and others dismissed concerns it could threaten fish populations and said other nearby states already allow multi-line angling in open water.

"Why not do it?" Dill asked.

Anglers would have to pay a higher rate to fish with two lines.

"It's certainly not in the spirit of conservation," Chaudhary said. He added that he would be open to allowing anglers to open-water fish with two lines if the plan was accompanied by lower fish possession limits.

To be sure, not all lawmakers like the idea of allowing anglers to fish with two lines in open water.

Rep. Dean Simpson, who represents part of west-central Minnesota's lake country and is a member of Dill's game and fish committee, remains unconvinced.

"I'm not real sure if it's a good thing or not," said Simpson, R-Perham. He said there are advantages and disadvantages to allowing two lines per person, but wondered whether it would take away some of the challenge of fishing.

Rep. Denny McNamara, also a House game and fish committee member, does not like the two-line provision without possession limit changes.

"There's going to be more fish caught," the Hastings Republican said.

McNamara does want the Legislature to create an advisory council to recommend how tax dollars from an approved ballot measure would be spent.

"The public might have a better understanding if they knew more about what they're voting for," he said.

Lawmakers are near agreement on creating a new program called Forests for the Future that establishes a fund the Department of Natural Resources could tap to buy private land. It then could place easements on the land to allow for public access before reselling it.

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, a Grand Rapids DFLer and chief proponent of the plan, said it addresses concerns about lack of access to public land that is surrounded by private parcels.

"It's been well vetted," Saxhaug said of the proposal.

Saxhaug said the Legislature also could approve a plan this year that would make it easier for the state and local governments to exchange land.

Next year, he said, the Legislature could go further and consider ways to make it easier for the state to exchange public land with land owned privately.

Some high-profile fishing proposals got snagged earlier this session and were abandoned. That included controversial plans to move up the spring fishing opener and make it easier for the DNR to lower the daily fish limit.

Those proposals, championed by Chaudhary, floundered in the Senate and were not even considered in the House, where Dill leads a game and fish panel.

Changing the fishing opener drew complaints from some resort owners and others worried an earlier opener would mean lakes still would be frozen over.

State Capitol reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.

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