A century and a half after the federal government granted Minnesota millions of acres intended to benefit public schools, some legislators are wondering where the money from that land has gone.
As outlined in the Minnesota constitution, the state must use school trust lands in a way that maximizes profit, such as leasing or selling the land. The money from those transactions should then go to a permanent fund that supports schools. Lawmakers say this isn’t actually happening.
On Feb. 21, the House Education Finance Committee reviewed HF2244, sponsored by Rep. Tim O’Driscoll (R-Sartell). This bill would remove the responsibility of overseeing the land from the Department of Natural Resources, which critics say has mismanaged trust lands for years. It would transfer that duty to a bipartisan committee made of legislators from both the House and Senate.
The bill was approved by the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. It now moves to the House Government Operations and Elections Committee. Sen. Benjamin Kruse (R-Brooklyn Park) sponsors its companion, SF1889, which awaits action in the Senate Education Committee.
O’Driscoll explained that the DNR cannot manage the land because the department’s purpose is to facilitate land conservation, while the trust lands are solely intended to raise money for education. With the proper management, supporters of the bill say schools could receive millions of dollars without raising taxes.
Grace Keliher, director of governmental relations for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said the DNR misuses funds from the land by bankrolling its own department with the money, rather than supporting students.
“You need to take (this bill) to the next step and make sure that school trust lands don’t become the credit card for the DNR,” Keliher said.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr refuted the allegation. He asked members to oppose the bill, saying that it overextends legislative responsibility and violates the state constitution.
“I’m not convinced that expanding government is a way to get increased efficiencies out of state assets,” Landwehr added.
Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township) defended the DNR, citing drastic cuts over recent decades as having “starved” the department of the necessary resources to manage the lands. He also criticized the bill’s approach to conservation.
“While I appreciate all of your interest in the exploitation of northern Minnesota’s great resources, after a lot of struggle with this, I have concluded that this is really wrong,” Anzelc said.
Rep. Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin), a longtime champion for trust land reform, disagreed. “If you think the current system is working, have at it. Continue on,” she said.
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