In the ongoing flap over whether the Oregon Legislature will refer certain "fixes" to Measure 76, it's worth noting that the group most concerned about referring those questions to voters—the Nature Conservancy—has a strong interest in preserving the status quo.

As WW previously reported, there was strong disagreement last summer about Measure 76 before voters approved that state constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

Some lawmakers and their allies, including the Oregon Education Association, objected to the way Measure 76 was written. Specifically, the measure contained no end-date, or "sunset" provision for its provision devoting 15 percent of Oregon Lottery proceeds to parks and wildlife habitat.

The measure also contained no provision for lawmakers to gain access to those set-aside funds in the event of a financial emergency. And it did nothing to anticipate the circumstance in which funding for parks and wildlife increased while expenditures funded by income taxes decline—as is currently the case.

Lawmakers and three environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, agreed on the outline of what the 2011 Legislature would refer to address all those concerns. In return for that agreement, the lawmakers and their allies pledged not to oppose Measure 76, which subsequently passed 69 percent to 31 percent last November.

The measure adjusted the current allocation of the Lottery set-aside. Currently the Lottery set-aside money, which totals more than $80 million annually, is split into two pots: 55 percent goes to fund grants for preservation and restoration projects and the balance goes to state natural resource agencies. Measure 76 would change that allocation, sending 65 percent of the funds to grants. The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Office determined that change would have the effect of shorting resource agencies by about $8.5 million over the next biennium, possibly causing that same amount to be diverted from other state priorities such as education and public safety.

Lawmakers proposed something of a compromise this session in House Joint Resolution 29. That package of tweaks would allocate 58 percent of the set-aside to grant-funded projects. That's an increase from current levels but seven percentage points less than the 65 percent called for by Measure 76.

In legislative testimony last week, the Nature Conservancy's Nan Evans said her group still conceptually supported a referral but had strong reservations about the proposed 58 percent allocation, despite having signed a document on Aug. 3, 2010 saying it would back post-measure legislative fixes. 

"We had not intended a change in the split between grant and agency funding," Evans told the House Energy Environment and Water Committee Feb. 22.

Evans' testimony carries great import. Her group spent more than $1 million to get Measure 76 passed and was by far the measure's biggest financial supporter. The Nature Conservancy also has a strong direct interest in seeing a greater allocation of Lottery dollars to grant funding.

A review of grants for acquisition and restoration of natural areas over the past decade shows that the Nature Conservancy has been a major beneficiary of Lottery-funded grants. The agency that doles out the grants, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, has awarded the Nature Conservancy 42 grants since 1999, totaling more than $15 million. The grants range in size from $2.5 million (two of them for acquisitions in Zumwalt Prairie in Wallowa County and at the confluence of two forks of the Willamette River in Lane County) to less than $20,000.

Melissa Leoni, a senior policy coordinator at OWEB, has determined that in dollar terms, Nature Conservancy is the biggest recipient of OWEB grants, getting 50 percent more cash than the runner-up, the Deschutes River Conservancy. (Other groups have gotten more grants but for less money).

"In terms of context, there are a couple of factors to consider that help explain [The Nature Conservancy]'s numbers," Leoni explained in an email to WW. "First, both TNC and the Deschutes River Conservancy are examples of entities that apply for large-scale restoration and acquisition grants.  These projects tend to have much higher costs than the typical restoration projects that OWEB funds.  That's why you see the lower number of total grants for these entities compared to the total grant funding awarded.  Second, TNC is one of the few organizations we work with that has a state-wide scope.  TNC does not limit itself to only working in certain parts of the state or on certain ecological issues.  That approach allows TNC to consider a broad range of projects to work on."