This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:
“Something happens to a man when he sits before a fire. Strange stirrings take place within him, and a light comes into his eyes which was not there before. An open flame suddenly changes his environment to one of adventure and romance.”
-Sigurd Olson, The Singing Wilderness
As we dig through our camping gear preparing for our first trip to “the Singing Wilderness,” the place that Sigurd Olson described as to “do with the calling of the loons, northern lights and the great silence of a land lying northwest of Lake Superior,” I have one last edition of the Capitol Update. The last edition is always dedicated to recognizing those in the Legislature who championed the environmental cause. I’m probably violating some sort of copyright or writers’ etiquette, but I will affectionately call these recognitions my “Sig” awards in honor of that environmental giant, Sigurd Olson.
Those who do not know of the great contribution Olson gave to the history of Minnesota need to spend some time learning more about this icon of wilderness preservation. As a young man, this son of a Baptist minister from northern Wisconsin moved near Ely, Minnesota, where he literally changed the face of the Boundary Waters. Just outside of the Minnesota Senate committee room where the Senate environment committees meet is a bust of Sig – one of the few statues not dedicated to a past politician in our State Capitol. Therefore, it would be fitting to honor this year’s legislative champions with a “Sig.”
I think old Sig would be happy with this year’s Legislature. Early passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment requiring constitutional dedication of a portion of the sales tax to invest in our great outdoors; a historical override of the governor’s veto of the transportation bill which dedicated money to transit; a record-setting capital investment bill for the environment and conservation; the dramatic finish that gave us the Central Corridor Light Rail and, probably what would be most dear to Sig, the designation of a new flagship state park just outside of his beloved BWCAW on Lake Vermilion. Except for a lackluster performance on energy and global warming issues, this was a strong session for the protection of Minnesota’s environment for our children and grandchildren.
Now for my three Sig awards. First, a disclaimer. These are my suggestions alone of the top three. I recognize there are many who could be honorable mentions. The 85th Legislature of the great State of Minnesota has many individuals who have fought passionately for the protection of our great outdoors and would be too numerous to include. So here is my call, but feel free to add your thoughts below.
The Override Six. I may be cheating on my annual “three” winners by mentioning the override six, but a gubernatorial override is historic. There has been a pent-up demand for transportation funding and a source of dedicated revenue to invest in critical transit options for years. In only the third week of legislative session the override vote was one of those pivotal historic moments, as legislators’ and lobbyists’ eyes peered at the House voting board to see if the requisite 90 votes would be reached. The vote was the most difficult in the House and would not have succeeded without the masterful leadership of Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. She needed to gain at least five Republican votes; she gained six. This was a difficult and courageous action by these six Republican legislators to go against their very popular Republican governor in order to make the necessary long-term investments in transit a reality.
To give you some historical context and how rare an override it is, if you take out the Ventura years as an anomaly both in substance and in the number of vetoes, there have been only two other governors who have been overridden in the last 40 years: Governor Quie twice during the budget crisis of the early 1980s and Governor LeVander in 1967, which gave us the sales tax for the first time in Minnesota.
The six courageous Republicans that earned my first Sig award are: Rep. Jim Abeler (Anoka), Rep. Ron Erhardt (Edina), Rep. Rod Hamilton (Mountain Lake), Rep. Bud Heidgerken (Freeport), Rep. Neil Peterson (Bloomington), and Rep. Kathy Tingelstad (Andover). These legislators are paying a significant price politically within the Republican Party for this vote. Tingelstad and Heidgerken have already announced they will retire, due in part to the partisan pressure following their override vote. Abeler, Peterson, and Erhardt are all facing challenges within their party, either for the endorsement or in the primary. They are all champions deserving of our recognition.
The Clean Car Martyrs. My favorite president, Teddy Roosevelt, in one of his greatest quotes said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again.” It will be rare that we give a Sig to legislators who actually lost on one of our critical issues, but the tenacious and valiant effort put forth by both Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) and Senator John Marty (DFL-Roseville) on the Clean Car Standards legislation deserves recognition. The legislation would have allowed Minnesota to join 14 other states in adopting strong automobile emissions standards, giving Minnesota cleaner air and significant savings at the fuel pump. Despite huge opposition from corporate behemoths in the automobile, fuel and agricultural industries, these tenacious authors came within only a few votes and one committee of making Minnesota the first Midwestern state to adopt the standard. The bill was literally dead on several occasions, but these two worked fiercely, like some emergency room doctors, never willing to give up on their patient. Though their faces were marred by the dust of the struggle, they certainly stood tall as true champions of the environment in the same spirit of Sig Olson in his battle to preserve our wilderness heritage.
The Capital Investment and Central Corridor Champion. Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) is my choice for the Sig Award of the Year. It should not be surprising that the baseball player who hits the grand slam at the end of the game is named MVP. Rep. Alice Hausman smashed a late inning grand slam for the environment during the passage of an unbelievably solid supplemental capital investments bill with only hours left in the session. This critical piece of legislation was still unresolved as the session was quickly moving to adjournment on the last day and the funding for the Central Corridor and the new state park on Lake Vermilion hung in the balance. Not only was she instrumental in obtaining the funding for these two critical investments for Minnesota at the last minute, but with the assistance of Rep. Ann Lenczewski (DFL-Bloomington), Rep. Hausman also slipped in another one of our priorities, the Cedar Avenue Bridge Bikeway.
Adding to her great finish for the environment was her earlier leadership on the Capital Investment bill. Typically environmental investments are able to nab about 20-21% of the biennial capital investments budget. This is where the state borrows money to make critical long-term investments in projects ranging from prisons to bridges. Rep. Hausman, as chair of the House Capital Investments Committee and the House chief negotiator, was able to garner 25% of this year’s bonding for critical environmental and conservation investments. Rep. Hausman received strong assistance from the environment finance chairs in both bodies, Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL – Minneapolis) and Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul), along with the bipartisan push from Rep. Dennis Ozment, Rep. Kathy Tingelstad and Sen. Dennis Fredrickson. Given the strong investments in our parks, in the preservation of our wild places and in clean water, I do not doubt Sig Olson would be pleased to have Rep. Hausman honored for her efforts this session. Great work, Alice!!
Thanks to all our environmental champions in the Legislature, 2008 was a good year for the Green Team. We will be back with some serious unfinished business on global warming and energy, along with other important environmental issues for 2009. But for at least a few weeks, kick back and enjoy a good wilderness campfire. And if you want some suggested reading for the summer, maybe grab one of Sig’s books like The Singing Wilderness or Runes of the North. They go well with late-night hot cocoa and the call of a loon reverberating across the lake as the campfire light sparkles in your eyes. If you happen to look across the lake, that just might be my campfire off in the distance.