Collaborative policy victory: Lottery reauthorization for Minnesota

Mike Harley and lead bill author Rep. Athena Hollins testify during the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee on Friday, May 5.

The Minnesota Legislature passed a bill this session that gives voters an opportunity to renew and enhance the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF), a long-term funding source for conservation and natural resource projects generated by the Minnesota State Lottery.

The bill also established a new Community Grants Program, which increases the amount of lottery funds that go towards the environment and creates a more equitable pool of funding. About $20 million a year will be available for smaller nonprofits, Tribes, and BIPOC-led organizations through the program.

Environmental Initiative is part of a coalition of BIPOC leaders and mainstream environmental organizations with a shared desire for the fund to continue and for it to be more accessible to all Minnesotans. The ENRTF Reauthorization Coalition (coalition) worked closely with legislators this session to get the bill to the finish line.

We are grateful for Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL St. Paul, and Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL St. Paul, for their leadership and unwavering support on this important legislation.

Lottery dedication history

The ENRTF has provided over $900 million in stable, long-term funding for innovative projects in natural resource management over the past three decades.

The fund was established in 1988, when 77% of voters approved an amendment to dedicate state lottery proceeds to fund conservation activities. Since then, voters have twice renewed this funding source, and it is currently set to expire in 2024 unless renewed by voters.

Securing ENRTF funding is a lengthy, complex, time-consuming, and resource-intensive process, meaning grant awardees are mainly large, well-established organizations. This creates barriers for Tribes, small nonprofits, and BIPOC-led organizations, preventing them from accessing state conservation dollars. Over the past five funding cycles, nearly 70% of available LCCMR funds were distributed to state agencies and universities.

Expanding access to Lottery funds

Environmental Initiative began working with BIPOC leaders and coalition members to explore more equitable governance models for administration of lottery funds starting in the summer of 2021.

Sam Grant, Rainbow Research and Mike Harley co-convened a subset of the larger coalition to design and envision the Community Grants Program. Environmental Initiative was asked to co-facilitate the effort and help build relationships between BIPOC leaders and white coalition members. Coalition members reached out to us because of our developing work with BIPOC communities, environmental justice, and our strong track record convening and facilitating conversations and partnerships.

This work has been powered by the relationships that we have developed with each other, and those relationships enabled us to stand firm and overcome resistance to the Community Grants Program during the legislative session. The entire coalition stayed together and remained grounded in our belief that funds should be available to the communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and pollution.

We are grateful to the champions who stayed with us throughout the process and who made the time in their busy schedules to ensure BIPOC voices were heard and that the Community Grants Program made it through the legislative process: Sam Grant, Sharon Nordrum, Joe Morales, James Trice, Francisco Segovia, and Carolina Ortiz. We are also extremely thankful to Stephanie Pinkalla, Government Relations Director at The Nature Conservancy and the ENRTF lobbying team. Stephanie made sure all coalition members were updated on legislative developments in real-time. Her clear, transparent updates ensured we could bring everyone along and make good decisions without leaving anyone behind.

What’s next

While there is a lot to celebrate with this legislative victory, the work is not yet done. Our partners at Conservation Minnesota will lead a coalition to encourage voters to support lottery reauthorization on the ballot in November 2024. We will continue to be involved in the coalition and the campaign to “Vote Yes.”

We also anticipate further hearings with the Minnesota Senate over the summer around the design of the new Community Grants Program. We hope to collaborate with community members, our coalition partners, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to help shape this new grant program.

We are confident that the relationships Environmental Initiative helped catalyze will carry us forward as we work together to advance the next phases of this work.

If you’re interested in supporting this work financially, learning more, or want to get involved, contact any member of our team: Mike Harley, Bill Droessler, Emily Haley, Rachel Geissinger, and Natalie Rademacher.

Member organizations of the ENRTF Reauthorization Coalition include: Audubon Society, Clean Water Action, Climate Generation, Conservation Minnesota, COPAL, CURE, Ducks Unlimited, Environmental Initiative, Freshwater, Friends of the Mississippi River, Great River Greening, Initiative Foundation, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, MN 350, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Minnesota Conservation Federation, Minnesota Environmental Partnership, Minnesota Land Trust, Minnesota Raptor Center, Minnesota Valley Trust, National Loon Center, National Wildlife Federation, Northern Water Land Trust, Pheasants Forever, Public Policy Project, Rainbow Research, The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy, The Raptor Center, The Trust for Public Land, Wilderness Inquiry, and Wild Rivers Conservancy.