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Opinion: Let lawmakers taketh away, not giveth

With two strokes of his pen, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed two line items of Legacy Amendment funding — and launched a great debate.

The sales tax authorized by amendment generates $90 million in Outdoor Heritage money a year. Now, who should decide how to spend it: the citizen-led Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which is charged with recommending projects?

Or the Minnesota Legislature, which this year passed the council’s recommendations — but not before adding the two projects that Dayton then scratched out with his pen?

The governor made the right call, says outdoor communicator Ron Schara, in an opinion shared by Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups.

Only the council can be trusted to rank conservation projects on their merits, not their politics, the groups suggest. After all, if the Legislature asserts control, then the Legacy funding plan will become nothing more than “one big pork bill,” Schara writes.

But the fact is, the law gives elected officials in the Legislature the final say. And it’s wrong for lawmakers to ignore this duty, the Star Tribune editorialized.

Minnesota’s elected officials “swear to uphold the state and federal constitutions,” the Strib declared.

“They do not take an oath of allegiance to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.”

So, who’s right?

That’s the wrong question. Because in this case, both sides have a point — and that means the better question is: Can the process be improved?

Here’s one idea:

The Legislature should be empowered to subtract from but not add to the Lessard-Sams Council’s list.

Schara’s right to worry about lawmakers using the bill to pay for pork. After all, when the Legislature approved the two add-ons, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, practically broke out the knives and forks: “Neither of these projects was recommended by the Outdoor Heritage Council, and the fact that they’re in this bill represents a big win for the House position of adding legislative priorities to the bill,” she said, as reported by the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

But by giving up this ability to “add legislative priorities,” lawmakers could neutralize Schara and other critics’ concerns. Meanwhile, the legislators still could scrutinize and sign off on the Lessard Council’s list, thereby retaining for elected officials — not an unelected council — the last word.

The Legacy Amendment is a Minnesota gem. And by improving the grants process, Minnesotans can better ensure that the right projects get the right amount of money for the right reasons. — Tom Dennis for the Grand Forks Herald