Lawmakers to DNR: Re-open walleye fishing on Mille Lacs to help struggling businesses

Minnesota lawmakers pumped the brakes Wednesday on Gov. Mark Dayton's call for a special session to aid Mille Lacs Lake businesses hurting from the early closure of walleye fishing season, instead suggesting a different solution: re-open the lake to walleye fishing.

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Resorts around the state's premier walleye fishing lake are already feeling the pinch from the sudden end of the season Monday night. A Mille Lacs tourism official told lawmakers 10 resorts had reported a combined $25,000 in cancellations, not counting the untold losses from reservations anglers aren't booking.

Dayton and a group of lawmakers examining how best to respond agree they need help but disagree on an approach.

Several lawmakers were sour on the idea of returning to St. Paul for a special session to craft a package of no-interest loans, property tax cuts and advertising funding that Dayton proposed. They said it's a premature step and that the state has other resources it can send to Mille Lacs that won't require a special session.

Instead, Sen. David Tomassoni and others said the best response would be to re-open Mille Lacs Lake through Labor Day.

"These resorts are experiencing immediate harm and I don't think we can help them fast enough," said Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.

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Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the Department of Natural Resources will discuss the possibility, but he didn't give it good odds. Before ending the walleye season, the DNR weighed that option heavily but opted against it. The agency felt it would hinder its efforts to reverse a perilous decline in walleye population and may violate the state's walleye harvest agreements with Indian tribes.

"This was not a good option," Landwehr told reporters after Wednesday's meeting. "The ones that we take today are going to impact the production of walleyes next year."

Dayton ultimately wields the power to call a special session, though it's up to the Legislature to set an agenda. The governor's administration pressed its case Wednesday for a special session, arguing that it would be necessary to send enough new money up to the Mille Lacs area to keep struggling resorts afloat.

Some 112 businesses may qualify for financial help from the state, Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben told lawmakers.

Property tax cuts for area businesses are already on the table, but that's not an alluring option unless the state reimburses counties for the lost tax revenue during a special session. A no-interest loan program favored by Dayton may also require the Legislature's signoff. Without some extra cash from the Legislature, the state can't afford the planned $400,000 advertising campaign to lure other anglers and travelers to Mille Lacs Lake, Explore Minnesota Director John Edman said.

Many area resorts can't take on more debt, so they don't see much use in a no-interest loan program, said Joel Carlson, a lobbyist for the Congress of Minnesota Resorts. But he urged the Legislature to act before the next session begins in March.

"Waiting until March for many of these businesses is just too late," he said.