The politics of parks and corn ethanol has added sizzle to the 2008 Legislature, and the issue of the proposed Vermilion State Park promises to simmer long after legislators go home next month.
First, the news:
• The announced $15 million price tag for Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed Vermilion State Park is far less than the $45 million that U.S. Steel was asking for 2,500 acres adjacent to the existing Soudan Underground Mine State Park on Lake Vermilion’s spectacular southeast shore. That purchase price is in the big bonding bill that’s on the governor’s desk, but a small sentence in the bill may give Pawlenty more fits than he’s bargained for.
• Frustrated by wildly conflicting views on whether legislation to restrict auto pollutants would affect the corn-ethanol industry, House agriculture leaders have scheduled an informational hearing for Monday to decipher evasive facts. The outcome of the Monday hearing is seen as key to the fate of “Clean Cars” bills by Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Blaine, and Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.
Acquisition of land for the Vermilion Park needs to get done by Aug. 1 — a deadline set by U.S. Steel, which has said it wants to move ahead with lakeshore development of five miles of choice, cliff-strewn shoreland that would constitute the park. But Pawlenty’s toughest challenge to creating Minnesota’s first park in years won’t be found at the Capitol in St. Paul. It will be in the boardroom of the St. Louis County Commissioners in Duluth.
Bill requires county support
Embedded in legislation authorizing the park is a single sentence that says the state must receive a resolution of support from St. Louis County; that puts Board Chair Mike Forsman of Ely, Minn., in the driver’s seat to get a few things. And any effort to amend the legislation to take away the county’s veto would mean that two powerful DFLers backing the park plan, Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook and Rep. David Dill of Crane Lake, would switch and oppose the park. That would be the near certain end of Pawlenty’s park plan.
Forsman laid out his minimum needs as he talked on a cell phone and guided his car over snowy roads past Babbitt to a meeting in Hoyt Lakes. Figure that as Forsman talked it was costing Pawlenty about a million dollars a mile.
First, the county board demanded that any park plan would not result in a net loss of tax revenue, and the pending legislation provides that the state transfer public land to private ownership to offset any loss of property taxes.
Next, Forsman said he will hold Pawlenty to a commitment he said the governor made at a town meeting near Soudan last summer to come up with at least $4.6 million as the state’s 20 percent state match to $23 million in federal funds that DFL U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar has already secured to repair conditions along Hwy. 169, conditions that Forsman and fellow board member Keith Nelson of Virginia, Minn., describe as “extremely dangerous.”
Next, Forsman and Nelson said they would extract a promise from Pawlenty that he would round up enough money to make Vermilion Park the kind of premier park that the governor promised to annually attract 300,000 visitors. Forsman said it would take $25 to $30 million to put in sewer lines and otherwise improve the park area.
“What we don’t want is for the state to merely buy the land and let it sit,” Forsman said. “That would be de facto wilderness, and that does little to attract tourism dollars.”
Ethanol producers feared curb in expansion
The Clean Cars bills drew unexpected opposition from Minnesota’s corn-ethanol producers who said that if, as the legislation proposed, the state would be bound to California’s very strict emissions standards rather than the federal government’s, the expanding ethanol industry would be harmed.
The legislation naturally drew opposition from the Minnesota Auto Dealers’ Association and the national auto manufacturer’s coalition, but the auto advocates said they couldn’t kill the bill by themselves. So they courted an unnatural ally, and got the Minnesota Corn Growers’ Association and the Farm Bureau to raise questions about how the bill would affect ethanol production.
Despite insistence by bill advocates that the ethanol industry may actually be helped by the legislation, the agriculture groups pressed their point and neutralized rural legislators, a move that stopped Marty’s bill in the Senate. But as legislators came to understand that the ethanol producers may be overplaying their hand, more and more began to openly question motives of the ethanol backers.
Sensing a need to shore up their opposition, the automobile groups fanned out across Minnesota to meet with newspaper editorial boards in what they hoped was a last grand chance to press the point that ethanol would lose due to requirements of California’s toughest-in-the-nation regulations.
When MinnPost examined the issue last week, it found that ethanol would be little affected by the Marty and Hortman measures. That prompted DFL Reps. Al Junke of Willmar and Mary Ellen Otremta of Long Prairie to arrange a joint meeting of their House agriculture and rural-development committees to quiz advocates from either side about whether ethanol would be affected.
In the House, Hortman’s bill has cleared committees and now is in the Finance Division awaiting a referral to the floor. In the Senate, Marty’s bill is bottled up in the Business and Jobs Committee, where it probably will languish until the issue of ethanol effects is put to rest.
The joint committee meeting next Monday afternoon following session cannot act on the pending legislation, but at the same time the results of that hearing are seen as pivotal to whether the bills continue to move toward passage.