Lawmakers pushing for school trust land reform

Legislation would strip DNR of management duties

By T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter

A bipartisan group of lawmakers want to take away management of the state’s school trust land from the Department of Natural Resources and entrust them to a new Legislative-Citizen Permanent School Trust Land Commission which would oversee, manage and administer the millions of acres.

The legislation, carried in the Senate by Sen. Benjamin Kruse, R-Brooklyn Park, is similar to legislation authored by Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, a lawmaker that fellow school trust land reformers call  “Superwoman” and the “Godmother of the school trust lands” for her reforming zeal.

“It’s more of a consensus bill,” Dittrich said of the proposed commission, which would not include the independent manager she envisioned as overseeing the 2.5 million acres of state school trust land.

Dittrich, like other lawmakers assembled at a State Capitol press conference Monday, Feb. 13, argues that the school trust land — a legacy of the formation of the United States — has never earned Minnesota school children the education revenue that it should.

“It’s important that we take management away from the DNR,” said Dittrich, adding the agency has an “inherent conflict of interest” when it comes to managing trust land.

Advocates argue the amount of money transferred from the trust land fund to schools in recent years — $23 million last year — is far below potential.

Indeed, Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, estimates that had the original school trust land been kept as originally parceled out it would be worth about $20 billion today. Had the trust land been managed differently even over the past 30 years it might have produced an additional $250 million, Downey said.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, a longtime critic of DNR school trust land management, also argued for taking away management of the trust land from the agency. “Somebody has to say, ‘You had your chance,’” he said.

Recently, DNR officials spoke of hiring a school trust land manager to help oversee the land.

But Dittrich indicated a lack of support, saying the DNR manager would still be operating within the agency, lack real authority, and have the cost of their salary and benefits come out of trust land revenues.

The purpose of his legislation, Kruse said,  is to bring in more transparency and public involvement into the management of the trust land. “This is not in any way an anti-environment bill,” he said of his legislation.

They believe they can squeeze more education dollars out of the land “and still respect our precious wildlife and lands in Minnesota,” he explained.

Kruse also believes school trust land management has been inadequate.

He points to 2009 school trust forest land returns showing a net profit of two percent. “I don’t know about you, but I guess I really don’t consider that a great return on the investment,” he said.

A Senate hearing is planned for Tuesday, Feb. 14, on the proposed legislation.

As envisioned, the new commission would be made up of two members appointed by the Speaker of the House, two members appointed by the Senate, four public members appointed by the governor, and a bipartisan group of six lawmakers.

Utah officials were on hand at the press conference to herald the increased revenue wrung from that state’s school trust lands after  management reform in Utah. Utah has served as a model for Minnesota school trust land reformers.

But critics have suggested that comparing Minnesota to Utah is speculative, because the latter has energy resources not found on Minnesota school trust land.