School land trust reform gains traction

Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, answers a question during a House hearing Tuesday, March 6 on school trust land management. Seated beside Dittrich is Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell, the bill’s author.

ECM Capitol Reporter

Although Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr styled the trust land legislation as creating a bureaucratic “quagmire,” on March 6 a House committee passed a bill that could dramatically alter how the state oversees its 2.5 million acres of school trust land.

Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell, with Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, at his side, saw his school trust land reform legislation pass the House Government Operations and Elections Committee on an 11 to 2 vote.

“I think he’s going to want to talk to us,” said a smiling Dittrich after the vote of having talks with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

O’Driscoll’s 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.

These duties would be taken over from the DNR on July 1, 2014.

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

Dittrich and other critics of current school trust land management policies argue the trust lands — originally when Minnesota became a state in 1858 setting aside two sections in each township to help finance local schools — have been woefully under performing in terms of generating dollars for the state’s school children.

They express chagrin that some 86,000 acres of school trust land encapsulated within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area remain isolated after decades of talks with the federal government.

Beyond this, some lawmakers, such as House Government Operations and Elections Committee Chairwoman Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, argue an inherent conflict of interest exists within the DNR between conservation and exacting the highest returns possible for the school children on the trust land.

“It’s not your fault,” Peppin told Landwehr of the perceived conflict of interest.

Things looked differently to Landwehr.

The commissioner argued that rather than being at odds, the DNR’s conservation practices and fiduciary duties to the school trust land go hand-in-hand. Only well-managed resources yield their highest financial potentials, he argued.

Moreover, Landwehr criticized the legislation as creating a layer of bureaucratic fat, one lacking the DNR’s land management expertise and requiring the hiring of additional staff.

For the full story, see the Thursday, March 15 print edition of the Times.