Minnesota lawmakers have approved a bill that requires video coverage of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, a measure that supporters say will increase transparency in how the influential committee recommends millions in state spending on conservation projects.
There is typically live broadcast of audio from the hearings, and those recordings are archived. But the meetings have not been regularly videotaped. State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, began pushing for video coverage last fall, saying it would enable more of the public to better follow council deliberations and build trust in the committee.
“I think it’s imperative that the public understand how we got to those decisions and what kind of testimony and information we are hearing as we go forward,” Becker-Finn said Friday on the state House floor before representatives approved the measure.
The bill, which was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate on Sunday, also directs $117.9 million in spending to Outdoor Heritage projects, which are designated to “restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife.” The money comes from Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, a sales tax reserved in the state constitution that also pays for clean water, parks, trails and arts projects. The Legacy Amendment was created by voters in 2008.
The 12-member Outdoor Heritage council, made up of legislators and citizens appointed by the governor, House and Senate, develops recommendations for specific projects lawmakers should spend the money on. Those recommendations are typically followed by the Legislature. For instance, this year, Pheasants Forever and the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society are set to get $1.74 million to buy land in the southern Red River valley and restore it so it can be managed as a waterfowl habitat.
The bill approved this week says that video of Outdoor Heritage meetings at the state Capitol must be streamed live and archived on the internet for playback. The council also has to stream video and tape meetings held outside the Capitol “to the extent practicable.”
Leaders on the council have supported the idea of videotaping meetings over the last several months, and House Public Information Services began covering some hearings at Becker-Finn’s urging. But House staff also warned in February that the council meetings can conflict with other work they traditionally provide and put a strain on their time and budget.
In an interview Monday, Becker-Finn said the Outdoor Heritage Council can use money set aside for administrative costs to cover the expense of filming. As the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted state government and moved most legislative hearings to Zoom, “it really kind of brings home how important it is to have a video record of what happens,” Becker-Finn said. It’s difficult for people to track complex legislation through a lengthy audio file, she said.
Lawmakers in both parties agreed.
Sen. Carrie Ruud, a Breezy Point Republican who chairs the Senate’s Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee, applauded the video requirement on the Senate floor before the Legacy bill was passed. “It lends to more transparency,” Ruud said.
The Outdoor Heritage Council had recommended $137.5 million in spending from the sales tax fund, though lawmakers approved $117.9 after negotiations with the committee because of the hit to tax collections from COVID-19. Ruud said the 14.2 percent cut was taken proportionally from all projects.
State Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul DFLer, has been working to extend video requirements to a similar committee: the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which develops recommendations for lawmakers on environmental spending from state lottery money.
On Saturday, the House approved $61.4 million from that fund and Senate Republicans passed a competing measure of their own. Earlier in the session, GOP argued it would be prudent to reserve money in case it’s needed to help state agencies as Minnesota faces budget deficits from COVID-19 that could grow worse.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, an Alexandria Republican who chairs the Senate’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, said he still believes that, but GOPers ultimately tried to exchange the LCCMR bill for a moratorium on Gov. Tim Walz’s efforts to impose tougher vehicle emission standards — which do not need legislative approval. House DFLers, who are more favorable to the stricter rules, balked. (Ruud said passing an LCCMR bill through the Legislature remains a “prime focus.” Lawmakers are expected to return for a special session in mid-June.)
Hansen said he didn’t try to pursue legislation to compel video coverage this year since he was embroiled in negotiations that were already challenging. But he said “now that the precedent is set (by the Outdoor Heritage bill), we’ll come back again.”
Becker-Finn said she hopes the Outdoor Heritage bill does lead to more video coverage at the Capitol, setting a precedent “that we want the public to know what’s happening.” Like the Outdoor Heritage council, before COVID-19 there was video recording of many, but not all committee hearings at the Legislature.
“If we are going to be making these very big decisions about hundreds of millions of dollars every year, the public absolutely should have the right to understand and hear straight from us about how we are making these decisions,” Becker-Finn said of the Outdoor Heritage Council.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Senate Republicans that passed their own spending bill for funds overseen by the LCCMR.