Capitol Update for April 18, 2008

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“I’ll hold the ball, Charlie Brown, and you come running up and kick it.”
Lucy Van Pelt*

Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown, Lucy and the rest of Peanuts, is one of our favorite sons from Minnesota. His first comic strips were published in 1947 in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He grew up in a quiet St. Paul neighborhood and returned there to work after distinguished service in World War II. His subtle and fatalistic humor seemed to speak to the Minnesota soul. We inevitably knew what would always happen to poor Charlie Brown when Lucy called him to kick the football. Time and time again, Lucy always knew how to get Charlie Brown to make that fast charge, only to end up on his backside. The pattern and the results always seemed inevitable. I always wondered if Schulz studied the legislative process. He would have discovered there are some predictable patterns to a course through the legislative session. But like a good comic strip writer, our politicians always seem to add a few twists to the same plot to keep us interested.

The 2008 Legislative Session has definitely fallen into a more typical plot and pattern as the session moves into its last weeks. If you remember from earlier reports, the legislative session started off at an extremely uncharacteristic fast pace. It maintained this pace until a couple of weeks ago with the completion of all the funding bills and the passage of the capital investments bill.

After last week’s creative line item vetoes by the governor of projects in the capital investments bill, the legislative pace has noticeably slowed down. As past legislative plots would indicate, the course of the legislative process requires the politicians at this point to take a few political shots at each other in the press. They seem to have done a fairly good job of accomplishing that part of the legislative plot in last week’s comic strip. Then the plot always turns to a reasonable cooling down period followed by the key legislative leaders and the governor meeting in the governor’s office to start the negotiations for what has become known as the “global agreement.” True to the plot scheme, the first of the global agreement meetings occurred on Wednesday of this week.

As each of the parties enter into these first discussions, it is a little bit like Charlie Brown walking back to get a run at that ball. The players are very tentative and trying to make sure they will not end up on their respective backsides. It was encouraging listening to each of the players as they exited the first global negotiations on Wednesday. The initial signs were very positive. Discussions Wednesday were only about what issues remained on the table for the global agreement and what will be the first steps in the resolution process. Issues not on the global agreement table can still move to the governor’s desk as separate bills, but they are not as safe as matters which are part of a final agreement.

If the negotiations take a similar course as in past legislative sessions, they will start slowly. They will occasionally break down for small periods of time to allow political shots in the press. This little back-and-forth game could last a couple of weeks, but with the weather improving and elections looming, those who are not in leadership positions will increasingly become discontent. Legislative leaders will soon find out that most of their political caucus members can be a little bit like Lucy Van Pelt at this time of year, exceptionally loud and crabby.

So the question arises: what environmental issues are on the table for the final global agreement negotiations? Probably the biggest of those environmental pieces on the table is the Central Corridor Transit Project. As noted last week, the governor vetoed several of the transit projects. He did leave $108 million of state borrowing available. This would allow Minnesota to produce their $70 million match needed to take advantage of the federal funding and complete the project.

The University of Minnesota continues to oppose the plan developed by the Metropolitan Council and the host cities to have the transitway travel through its campus along Washington Avenue. These are some difficult negotiations for a critical project, and failure to come to a reasonable resolution quickly could have some long term consequences for the development of a coordinated regional transit system.

Another environmental issue on the table is how, if at all, to fund the Vermilion State Park. The governor has indicated he would be satisfied with some authority to use Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) growth to fund “user fee bonds” as opposed to general obligation bonds for the park. This would free up more of the $108 million still on the table for bonding for other legislative projects like the transit planning that was vetoed. Legislative leaders have indicated reluctance to take away from the LCCMR. Further complicating this issue is that it does not have to be included in this year’s bill for the state park to be successful. The state could simply wait until after the purchase agreement is signed and make it contingent on future legislative approval. Nonetheless, the governor has indicated this is an important issue for him.

Environmental projects did quite well in comparison to previous years in the bonding bill. Twenty-five percent of the overall bonding bill was for environmental projects. This amounts to one of our highest performances in the last decade. A couple of MEP’s collaborative agenda park proposals were line item victims, those being St. Paul Great River Park and Springbrook Nature Center. Also very disappointing was the Legislature’s lack of support for our next generation biofuels easements. It is possible these projects could come back in final negotiations, but that likelihood is very low.

The major focus of the global negotiations will be closing the billion dollar budget deficit. For the first time in decades, the environment programs took only small hits in the budget plans of both the House and Senate. Therefore, the environment should be safe from any major cuts in the final agreement.

A couple of issues not on the global agreement table, but nonetheless very important to the environmental community, still remain. The Clean Car Standards Bill still has not broken loose from opposition by the ethanol industry in the House and still lingers in the Senate Business, Industry and Jobs Committee. Though the global agreement will take awhile, the issues they must deal with are comparatively small to other sessions. Therefore, if negotiations go smoothly, the session could wrap up quickly and may leave the Clean Car Standards Bill at the curb. Then again, the words “if” and “smoothly” are a pretty tall order for the very polarized political environment that has come to characterize recent Minnesota legislative sessions.

The other issue still working its way through the process is the Green Solutions Act authored by Sen. Ellen Anderson and Rep. Kate Knuth. The original bill was to give clear direction to Minnesota’s development of a cap and trade system to reduce global warming pollution. Unfortunately, the best we were able to accomplish was the development of some legislative oversight of the regional negotiations and a set of studies to help guide the development of any future cap and trade regulations. Last week both the House and Senate files passed their last committee stops and are now available for full floor action in both bodies.

This last week was certainly a slow stroll for the legislators and the rest of us Capitol regulars. It did feel a little like our old friend Charlie Brown taking a stroll back to get ready for that last fast run at the end of session in hopes of actually kicking that football this time. There are some significant environmental issues still waiting to be resolved. The most significant of those is the Clean Car legislation. Therefore, be attentive because the end will come quickly. Hopefully we will actually see the Legislature kick that ball once and for all to end the session on a positive note for the Green Team.

* Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz, United Featured Syndicates, Inc. 1996.

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