Rep. Denise Dittrich sees long-desired reform bill pass House

By T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter

Monday, March 19, the House passed school trust land legislation that would take away management of the state’s more than two million acres of school trust land from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and give it to a new board.

The bill passed the House on a 104 to 26 votes, Republican and Democratic members praising Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, and the Republican bill author for long overdue reform.

House Education Reform Committee Chairwoman Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, thanked Dittrich — whom one education official dubbed the “Godmother” of the school trust lands — for showing persistence and courage in her five-year quest for reform.

The fact lawmakers are actually talking about trust land reform on the House floor is historic, Erickson argued.

Dittrich, and other reform advocates, said the trust lands are financially under performing and that Minnesota school children are being cheated out of funding legacy given to them by the Founders of the Republic.

“This is no fault of the DNR,” said Dittrich of a perceived conflict of interest existing within the agency.

Still, Dittrich argued the current system leav “no authentic oversight” of the trust lands.

House Education Finance Committee Chairman Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, spoke of the legislation bringing badly needed sunshine onto trust land management.

“We’re actually getting this done,” he said of passing a bipartisan bill.

But some lawmakers rose on the House floor to question the wisdom of the legislation.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, spoke of unintended consequences.

“I contend we don’t have a clue about what the outcome will be,” she said of taking control away from the DNR.

Further, Hausman said the legislation would create another layer of bureaucracy.

Other opponents suggested the proposed reform would serve as an invitation for environmentally unsound land use, practices spurred on by a unreasoning focus on immediate returns.

And they questioned how the school trust land reform legislation would fit with attempts at streamlining the environmental permitting process and other environmental legislation at play.

But Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, a long time critic of the DNR trust land management, said the DNR simply will not accept reform.

“There’s been chance after chance after chance for the DNR to address this issue,” he said.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr recently argued the trust land reform bill would create a bureaucrat “quagmire” and that it made no sense to take away management from the state agency that had the expertise to do the job.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton also recently expressed concern over the legislation, indicating lawmakers should first look to improve the existing school trust land oversight system before throwing it out.

The school trust land reform 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.

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

The trust land legislation is carried in the Senate by Sen. Benjamin Kruse, Brooklyn Park.