Rep. Dittrich leaves the Legislature with a big win

/ 30 April 2012 / jennifer

T.W. Budig, ECM Publishers, April 30, 2012 –

A tough political fight for an area lawmaker came successfully to end on Saturday (April 28) with a touch of a pen.

Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, appearing before a legislative committee earlier this session on the school trust bill. Sitting next to Dittrich is House bill author, Rep. Tim O’ Driscoll, R-Sartell. (Photo by T.W. Budig)</p>

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton signed school trust land reform legislation into law on Saturday, reforms long sought by Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, who is retiring from the Legislature after four terms.

“It’s monumental — both for me personally, and for the trust lands,” said Dittrich of the reform bill.

Dittrich has long argued that the 2.5 million acres of school trust land in Minnesota — a legacy dating back to the foundation of the Republic — have not been as vigorously managed as to benefit the state’s school children that the children and legislative fiduciary duties demand.

In the legislation crafted between the Republican House and Senate, a shared management team between the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner and a school trust land director is envisioned for the trust land.

While the DNR retains hands-on duties, this will be in working in conjunction with the trust land director, Dittrich explained.

In cases of disputes between the DNR commissioner and director on trust land policy, the director, armed with facts and figures, is obligated to report back to a Legislative Commission — a bipartisan group of lawmakers — and the governor to report.

Don’t under estimate the power of the Legislature in resolving these disputes, said Dittrich.

Indeed, all legislation concerning the trust lands would be filtered through the legislative commission, she explained.

Dittrich is not the first lawmaker to appeal for school trust land reform. Some of the most spellbinding speeches on the House floor have been made by Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, a longtime critic of DNR school trust land management.

Dittrich credits Rukavina for helping to engineer the current reforms.

But Dittrich has been the most visible lawmaker in the House in recent years in calling for another look at the school children’s vast land share-holding.

In part, she credits her success to educating her fellow lawmakers about the school trust land and their fiduciary obligations to it.

“I’ve gotten what I would have like to have gotten, and more,” she said of the final reform bill.

Dittrich has championed the school trust land model used in the State of Utah, helping to bring Utah officials to Minnesota to testify before legislative committee on the trust land turnabout in that state.

In upcoming months more immediate and long-term strategies for managing Minnesota’s school trust lands will be crafted.

Dittrich warns the public should not expect an immediate upswing in revenue for the schools from the trust lands.

That will take time, she warns.

Lawmakers have suggested that part of the hunting and fishing license fees should be dedicated towards school trust funding as hunters and other outdoor people have benefited from the trust lands for more than a century. (Photo by T.W. Budig)</p>

But some $2 million in immediate funding has been achieved through changes to DNR fire suppression policy, she explained.

Although Dittrich is leaving the Legislature, her advocacy for the school trust land will not end.

“There’s no way I can walk away from this,” said Dittrich.

She can be active as a private citizen, she explained.

The reform legislation, besides creating the legislative commission, also creates a Permanent School Funding Advisory Board, a group of private citizens with expertise in land management.

The trust land reform bill was carried in the Senate by Sen. Benjamin Kruse, R-Brooklyn Park.

Most of the remaining school trust land in the state is located in northeast Minnesota, though fragments can still be found around the metro area.

Former DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam, a member of the ECM-Sun Editorial Board, once styled the school trust lands as suffering from “benign neglect.”

When Minnesota became a state, Section 16 and 36 lands of each township were set aside for the use of schools.