Capitol Update for January 9, 2009

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:
“Favor comes because for a brief moment in the great space of human change and progress some general human purpose finds in him a satisfactory embodiment.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office on January 20th, for a brief moment in this great expanse of human history he will embody America’s desire for change.  Certainly the best comparison to the Obama inauguration would be that of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Americans had an immense hope that the FDR presidency would bring a new future despite the shadows of the Great Depression and simmering world turmoil.  No one, except maybe a crusty old Libertarian hermit, would deny Obama’s inauguration as one of the most historic in our nation’s life, and it represents a hope for a better future.  It certainly made scheduling appointments with DFL legislators for the week of the inauguration nearly impossible as many scrambled to find tickets to events and a couch to crash on in Washington, DC.

At our Capitol in St. Paul this week, the 2009 Minnesota Legislative Session kicked off at noon on Tuesday.  Having experienced eight biennial session opening days either as a legislator or a lobbyist, this was the most somber.  This Legislature will face the most significant budget crisis since the Great Depression when FDR took the oath of office.  Our future reports from the Capitol will undoubtedly focus on the intricacies and the depth of this financial challenge.  For this first report, let’s stick with our new president’s theme of change and touch on some of the changes the environmental community will face going into the 86th session of the Minnesota Legislature.

Due in part to past environmental successes, the top collaborative issues for MEP are mostly new for this session.  We are still seeking to drive vehicle innovation by adopting the clean cars standard for Minnesota.  This effort has changed from last year in that it has become eminently clear that the American Big Three auto manufacturers have failed us by not producing the cars we want; it is time for Minnesota to join with 14 of its sister states in demanding those innovations.  Our first new issue for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP) is a proposal to help build sensible communities by assisting cities in providing designs that make them more accessible and reduce the amount we have to drive.  Also new on our agenda is our platform to protect our waters by ensuring safe sulfide mining practices and closure.  Part of last year’s collaborative agenda was to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot, but thanks to Minnesota voters our agenda has now changed to protecting the investment they have made in our Great Outdoors.  It is our goal to ensure these investments are used to protect our waters, wild places and wildlife without being raided as a short-term fix to the budget.

This “Protect Minnesota’s Future” agenda described above received a positive rollout at our Annual Legislative Forum held this past Thursday at the Science Museum in St. Paul.  With a record turnout of community leaders and legislators,  we had the opportunity to hear from House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL – Minneapolis), Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem (R- Rochester), Assistant Majority Leader Tarryl Clark (DFL – St. Cloud) and the executive director of the Board of Water and Soil Resources, John Jaschke.  Despite the immense budget crisis facing these leaders, they all reflected a desire to make sure that this short-term crisis does not detract from our need to look long-term to preserve our natural resources for children and grandchildren.  All in all, it was a very successful Forum.

The makeup of the 86th Legislature also has some changes worth noting.  The House of Representatives saw the most change, obviously because 2008 was their election year. There are 23 newly elected House members; this number is down from the last legislative session which boasted 35 new members.  The DFL caucus picked up two additional members so there are now 87 DFL members to 47 Republican members.  Despite the turnover, gender makeup of the House is exactly the same as the previous term with 91 men and 43 women.  Interestingly, within this gender makeup the DFL actually has two less women in their caucus and the Republicans have gained two women in theirs.  We’ll see if that translates into a kinder, gentler Republican minority.

The House also had some significant changes to its committee structure.  They reduced the size of their standing committees and, as usual with the influx of new members, there has been some reshuffling of committee membership.  Probably the biggest change from the environmental standpoint was the creation of a new finance division known as Cultural and Outdoor Resources.  The Speaker of the House has complete authority in establishing jurisdiction and membership of each committee.  At our Forum on Thursday, she indicated it was her desire to put emphasis on the need to use these dollars appropriately.  She desires there to be interaction between the new Cultural and Outdoor Resources Committee and the long-standing Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division.  How these two committees interact is something that will likely develop over the session.

Interestingly, the Cultural and Outdoor Resources Committee is chaired by Rep.  Mary Murphy (DFL-Hermantown) who voted against the placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot in last year’s legislature.  Nonetheless, she has clearly indicated a desire to make sure the money is used for the purposes the voters intended.  At MEP’s Forum, Speaker Anderson Kelliher referred to Rep. Murphy as a “seasoned veteran of the legislative process who has risen up to meet the challenge of protecting the voters’ intentions.”  Rep. Murphy is one of the most respected members of the House, now serving her 17th term.  She has a very professional staff including landing a veteran of the legislative process for her new committee administrator in Kerry Fine.  The challenge as this committee moves forward is to clearly define their jurisdiction and their oversight role, but you can expect one of the most professionally run committees from this veteran team.

The House Environment Policy and Oversight Committee saw some shuffling of its members, giving it a slightly new look.  Rep. Kent Eken (DFL-Twin Valley) remains as chair.  He has the reputation of being an evenhanded leader and with two years of experience under his belt, we expect the committee to exert even more influence over the legislative agenda this session.  The 19 member committee contains 10 members who did not serve on the committee last year.  Five of those new members are first-term members: Paul Anderson (R- Starbuck), Andrew Falk (DFL-Murdock), Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie), John Persell (DFL-Bemidji), and Phil Sterner (DFL – Rosemount).  There are five veterans joining the committee: Al Juhnke (DFL – Willmar), a seventh term member who also chairs  the Agriculture, Rule Economics and Veterans Affairs Finance Division; Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis), a fourth term member who chairs the Health and Human Services Oversight Committee and is an announced candidate for governor; the above mentioned Mary Murphy; Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul), a seventh term member who is also chair of the Public Safety Finance Division; and second term member Steve Drazkowski (R-Wabasha).

The House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division will continue to be chaired by one of Minnesota’s long-standing environmental champions, Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL – Minneapolis).  She will be losing the assistance of two other great champions who chose not to run in 2008: Dennis Ozment and Kathy Tingelstad.  An exciting addition to her committee will be Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL – Brooklyn Park).  As most you know, Rep. Hortman has been a tireless leader on many of our issues, including adoption of the Clean Car Standards.

Even though the full Senate will not face reelection until 2010, there were a couple of special elections to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Dan Larson (DFL – Bloomington) and Sen. Betsy Wergin (R- Princeton). They were replaced by two new DFL senators, Kenneth Kelash (DFL – Minneapolis) and Lisa Fobbe (DFL – Zimmerman). The good news is that these two individuals were added to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.  Chairman Satveer Chaudhary (DFL – Fridley), one of the key leaders on adoption of the constitutional amendment, will now preside over a 16 member committee.  Many environmentalists have praised the Senate’s expansion of the committee and feel it creates a more positive and proactive platform for environmental issues.

The 2009 session will have many new challenges as we move forward; however, again in the words of FDR, “There is nothing I love as much as a good fight.”  Given the financial challenges facing the State and the aggressive agenda selected by the MEP community, we will definitely enjoy some good fights as we battle to protect Minnesota’s Great Outdoors for our children and grandchildren.  I’m confident I speak for the rest of the MEP team to say we look forward to working with our partners to build on the past successes and assist the 86th Legislature in making some historic changes to protect Minnesota’s future so that we can enjoy it, protect it and pass it on.

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