Others’ opinion: Outdoor council loses a champion

Published 8:57 am Monday, March 9, 2015

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Minnesotans dedicate enormous sums of public dollars through the state’s Legacy Amendment to protect the state’s treasured lakes, rivers, forests and prairies. Accountability must accompany this generosity, which is why those who ask tough questions about this spending should be valued, not punished.

Unfortunately, a recent move by Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt raises troubling questions about the priority put on scrutiny of these dollars and the influence powerful outdoors special interests have on how they’re allocated.

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A 12-member unelected council made up of legislators and private citizens makes key spending recommendations — which are generally rubber-stamped by the Legislature — for more than $100 million annually in Legacy sales tax dollars. Daudt decided not to reappoint state Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. In doing so, he disregarded the recommendation of House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, who had requested that Hansen continue to serve.

Hansen is an outdoorsman and has degrees in biology and soil management. He’s also a longtime suburban legislator, providing a welcome perspective on a council that has sometimes drawn criticism for focusing on outstate projects over those in the metro. Nevertheless, this is the second time that Hansen’s tenure on the council has been interrupted, suggesting that something other than his credentials is influencing decisions about his tenure.

Hansen has long been a dogged advocate for thoroughly vetting projects that come before the council for funding. He’s often the “1” in 11-1 council votes and is unafraid of challenging members whose views hew closely to outdoor special interest groups. Many of these groups vie for Legacy funds.

Former GOP House Speaker Kurt Zellers chose not to continue Hansen’s service on the board in 2011. Thissen reappointed Hansen when DFLers took control of the House after the 2012 elections. With a new House Republican majority, Daudt chose to replace Hansen with state Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake.

Dill is a longtime legislator and hardworking advocate for his northern Minnesota district. But the Outdoor Heritage Council is losing an independent voice with Hansen’s departure. While fellow council member Ron Schara said in an interview that Hansen is a “contrarian” and “tends to rub people the wrong way,” Daudt should have put a priority on Hansen’s ability to ask hard questions. Asked about the move, Daudt only provided a statement saying he was honored to appoint Dill; Republican Rep. Denny McNamara, of Hastings, and Schara, the TV outdoors show host. Other appointments are made by the governor and the state Senate.

Hansen is indeed a hardheaded skeptic. But strong management of public dollars requires the kind of vetting that Hansen demanded.

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