Capitol Update for April 4, 2008

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“He came here the other day and talked with me about the rascality of this Indian business until I felt it down to my boots. If we get through this war, and I live, this Indian system shall be reformed.”
Abraham Lincoln, 1862*

The person Abraham Lincoln referred to in this quote was Minnesota’s first Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple who resided in Faribault. Immediately upon Whipple’s arrival here in 1859, he recognized the corruption and abuse that was taking place in the “business” that had developed around Native American relations. It was his fearless advocacy against this corruption that earned him the nickname “Straight Tongue” from the local Sioux Native Americans who still inhabited the lake areas around Faribault, Minnesota.

His persistent beseeching of the president on behalf of Native Americans appeared to change Lincoln’s pioneer heart, which was typically tilted against Native Americans. It was Whipple who personally intervened after the Sioux uprising, convincing Lincoln to save the lives of literally hundreds of Native Americans from mass execution in Mankato.

Lincoln’s quote was sadly prophetic when he intimated that if he lived after the war he would seek reform in the “Indian system.” Unfortunately, Lincoln did not survive for long after the war and corrupt Western interests prevented any real reform for years in Native American relations. This of course led to further heartbreak in the West from Wounded Knee to Little Bighorn. This 1862 encounter between Lincoln and Whipple was certainly one of those historic moments in politics which amounted to a lost opportunity.

This week at the Minnesota Legislature was probably a continuation of the history of lost opportunities in politics. The central focus this week and one of the major goals of the 2008 Legislature was the passage of the capitol investments bill. Over last weekend, Legislative leaders finally reached a compromise between the House and Senate conferees. They quickly moved to negotiate with the governor’s office, where it appears the negotiations have crumbled into a lost opportunity.

The dispute between the governor and the Legislature appears to center around the overall size of the capitol investments bill. The House and Senate reached agreement on a $925 million package. The governor, on the other hand, wants to adhere to the long-standing guideline of keeping our annual repayment of bonds less than 3% of the overall state budget. This would limit this session’s investments to $825 million according to the governor’s Revenue Department.

Given their failure to reach an overall agreement with the governor, the Legislature chose to pass their bill and send it to the governor to see what would happen. Both the House and Senate passed this bill on Wednesday, and the governor will have three days to veto it after the bill is presented to him. He could also line-item veto or sign the bill. As of Friday morning, there were rumors running around that he may line-item veto specific projects to get the bill down to his $825 million target. However, if I were to bet, I would guess that he will choose to veto the entire bill and “hi-ho, hi-ho” back to work they go. We’ll give you an update as soon as we know more.

Even though the $925 million package is probably not what the final product will look like, it gives us a picture of where the negotiations are going regarding the many environmental and conservation projects being considered. First of all, the investments in environment categories were about 22% of the overall $925 million bill, which amounts to just over $200 million in investments in our great outdoors. That would be a good overall showing for the Green team if it holds.

The conference committee proposal had a few big winners in the environment area. The Clean Water Legacy provisions in the Public Facilities Authority did quite well. Investments in wastewater treatment facilities were given high priority by the Legislature.

Another big winner was our parks and trails proposals, which did proportionally well. Of course, even a retired legislator gets excited to see local projects get funded. Therefore, I was thrilled that my favorite local trail, Mill Town Trail, received funding for the development of the next couple of links in the trail. Frankly, that is why parks and trails do well; it has a local connection legislators love to work hard for.

Also winning in the overall bonding bill was the transit funding, particularly the Central Corridor receiving its full funding.

Despite the legislative conference committee’s numbers being higher than what the governor wants by nearly $100 million, they still had to pare back several hundreds of millions of dollars in projects to reach the $925 million package. This resulted in some big missed opportunities in the environment area.

Probably most disappointing for the MEP team was the fact there was absolutely no investment in our proposed clean energy easements for the next generation of biofuels. We have asked for $46 million to help farmers set aside acreage in perennial prairie grasses and other biofuels. This would start moving Minnesota away from the more destructive corn-based ethanol into a source of fuel that is good for wildlife habitat and keeping our lakes, rivers and streams clean. The Legislature did provide some language modifying the Reinvest In Minnesota (RIM) easements, allowing more harvesting for biofuels of existing and future easements, but it was nowhere near the major investment we believe is needed to start the development of this next-generation of locally grown energy.

Another big disappointment for the environment was only $3 million in investments in Forest Legacy Easements. These are permanent easements on forest land which keep it from being parceled off and developed. MEP proposed a $30 million investment. The DNR suggested a $20 million investment, and the governor pared that down to a $9 million request. The Senate had $9 million in their original proposal, but the House had zero. The conference committee report was only able to come up with $3 million for these critical investments.

Another big loser in the legislative proposal was the lack of funding for the Vermilion Lake State Park. There was a lot of confusion around how this should be funded. The governor has recommended using a portion of the growth in the environmental trust fund (lottery money). The House had recommended the park be purchased with general obligation bonds. The conference committee report has left the park out completely for now and the governor has indicated it is one of his top priorities. After the veto, one would expect this may be part of the ongoing negotiations.

Even if the funding is not put in this year’s bill, it doesn’t mean the park will not happen. Because the state has not signed a purchase agreement with the present land owner, US Steel, it would be very difficult to fund this park through the bill. The DNR could certainly enter into a purchase agreement that is contingent upon final approval by the Legislature in a future session. Therefore, all hope is not lost, but several obstacles still need to be overcome for this beautiful slice of Minnesota to become another flagship state park for future generations.

In addition to the capitol investment bill, we still have the global warming initiatives of the clean car standards and the Green Solutions Act on our plate. The clean car standards continue to pick up momentum. There was a small appropriation to implement the clean car standards in Minnesota in the major appropriations bill that passed on Thursday in the House. There were a couple of amendments to remove that appropriation, but they were skillfully pushed back by our chief author Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park).

The bill still has to pass the Legislature for the appropriation to mean anything. Therefore, that sets up our biggest test on Monday of next week when the clean car standards bill will have an informational hearing in the joint committees of Agriculture, Rural Economics and Veterans Affairs Finance Division and Policy Committee. This hearing will be at 3 p.m. on Monday in Room 5 of the State office Building. We have continued to fight the false rumor that this will harm ethanol production, and this is our opportunity to finally fillet that red herring.

The Green Solutions Act continued to move forward, passing committees in both the House and Senate. Unfortunately, the principles suggesting the establishment of a strong cap and trade regulatory structure for global warming pollution were removed. The legislation still has some critical studies that will be necessary to help guide the Midwest governors’ negotiations of the regional global warming pollution regulations in the fall of this year. It is at that gathering we hope to have a regional rule for cap and trade developed. The studies are critical, but it was a significant disappointment that the Legislature did not want to take a more aggressive leadership role by establishing some state principles to help guide the future negotiations with the neighboring states.

The Green Team still has a lot to do so that the 2008 Legislative session does not turn into a missed opportunity for long-term investments in our great outdoors and for a serious reduction in global warming pollution. Stay tuned for a big week coming up.

*”Wounded Knee recalls Bishop’s plea for Indians,” Golden Nugget, March 23, 1973 taken from Nuggets from Rice County Southern Minnesota History, published by The Northfield Historical Society.

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