John Tuma’s Capitol Update – March 19, 2010
“High water risin’ – risin’ night and day
All the gold and silver being stolen away”
-Robert Allen Zimmerman, September 2001*
It was with great irony that my car radio was blaring these raspy words of Hibbing, Minnesota, native Robert Zimmerman (a.k.a. Bob Dylan) while my car raced south over the I-35E bridge across the flooding Mississippi last night. It reminded me that the legislative session has distinct seasons and natural flows to its process. At the same time the Minnesota, Crow and Red rivers flood over their banks, the Minnesota Legislature is entering its flood season known as committee deadlines. Legislative ideas have been frozen like ice crystals for months waiting for the melting sun and spring rains to break them loose into a torrent of activity we call committee deadline week.
The Minnesota Legislature has a long-standing tradition to set committee deadlines requiring a bill to pass out of all of its policy committees in order to be considered for final passage off the floor and be sent to the Governor. As sure as the coming of spring rains, the Legislature usually delays for the first few months of the session and then suddenly the collective mass of legislators wake up a couple weeks before deadlines with the realization that they need to move their bill. The result is a flood.
Every year they promise not to allow this flood to happen, but without a doubt they forget and the result is a flood of activity right before the committee deadline. Friday of this week was the final policy committee deadline; as a result there was a lot of activity on environment issues. Here’s a quick snapshot of how some of MEP’s priority issues weathered the flood of activity:
Complete Streets. The deadlines have not been a problem for the Complete Streets legislation (SF2461/HF2801). After our Complete Streets Team carefully crafted legislation with the assistance of the Department of Transportation to meet the concerns of the local units of government, the bill moved through the process rather smoothly. On Tuesday of this week, the bill had a hearing in front of the Senate Transportation Finance Committee where it went so smoothly that our author didn’t have to say a word as the committee approved the legislation. The bill only has to stop at the full Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee to confirm it has no budget impact. There should be no real opposition in those committees and then the bill will finally be ready for full floor action. Our chief authors, Sen. Tony Lourey (DFL-Kerrick) and Rep. Mike Obermueller (DFL-Eagan), have done an excellent job in shepherding the legislation away from any danger.
Protecting Our Water from Toxic Mining. The committee deadlines were our nemesis for the legislation proposing to close loopholes in the state’s mining laws. Our bills (SF2349/HF2560) did not make the committee deadlines, but we were able to secure needed legislative oversight hearings on the mining process. Last week was dominated by 10.5 hours of Senate oversight hearings. This week we secured a very productive House hearing on Thursday. Our chief author in the House, Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul), did an excellent job making the case for continued close scrutiny by the Legislature of the permitting process for sulfide mining. Even though we were not able to get legislative action tidying up our mining law, the DNR and the mining companies are on notice that they should proceed carefully to protect our lakes, rivers and streams from toxic mine runoff.
There has also been an effort this week on the part of the mining companies to reduce their wetland mitigation obligations for mining permits. The first sulfide mine will be the state’s largest wetland destruction in Minnesota history. There was a late effort to reduce some of their wetland mitigation requirements, but thankfully the Board of Water and Soil Resources recognized the need to go slowly and wait for a full reclamation plan from the mining companies before we think about any changes to the wetland rules.
Safeguarding Minnesota’s Outdoor Legacy. One of MEP’s major missions this session was preserving Minnesota’s commitments to funding our outdoor legacy programs. Typically budget bills are not subject to the policy committee deadlines, but it is not uncommon that they are put together at the same time, adding to the flood of activities in the middle of March at the Legislature. The major activity in the funding arena this week was the issuance by the Governor of his line item vetoes of the bonding bill. It was clear that the Governor’s office and the legislative leaders were misinterpreting each other’s signals on how the bonding bill should be resolved. Most legislators, when they adopted their billion dollar bonding bill, expected the Governor only to trim it around $200 million, but instead he knocked it down $320 million. The Governor did leave a good percentage in environmental funding at over a quarter of the bonding bill, but did severely cut some of our marquee programs. Over $21 million in trail acquisition was vetoed along with all of the transit projects. Surprisingly, he swept away $25 million of the RIM easement program which goes to restoring critical habitat and wetlands. The worst thing about that veto means we lose out on $35 million in federal matching funds which will now go to another state or remain unused.
Defending Minnesota’s Environmental Policy Foundation. This is where committee deadlines are our best friend. Floods are not always bad and are often part of the natural regeneration of floodplain soils. The goal of committee deadlines is to narrow the focus of the legislative session and, as a result, you hope it winnows out some of the bad ideas trying to destroy the good environmental laws built up over the years in Minnesota. It appears that we have fought off legislation to repeal the nuclear reactor construction moratorium. This week the House Energy Finance and Policy Division, led by Chair Bill Hilty (DFL-Finlayson), fended off several attacks on our state’s strong energy policy developed over the last three years. There was even a bill to repeal our nation leading and well-respected Renewable Energy Standard (RES) that has led to substantial energy development and jobs in our state. These misguided efforts surprisingly resulted out of the rush to the right by the Republican gubernatorial candidates. Rep. Tom Emmer was one of the few representatives to vote against this national leading policy a few years back and has been using that as some sort of badge of honor in the race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination against Rep. Marty Seifert, who voted for the legislation. As a result, Seifert — not wanting to be outdone jumping off the deep right end of the river — introduced a bill to repeal the RES. Chair Hilty, wanting to make a good policy point, gave the bill a hearing so it could be defeated, highlighting the folly of Seifert’s little flip-flop play to the right.
The Green Team at the Legislature has been struggling hard to keep their heads above water this session, fending off several attempts to weaken environmental policies. There have been efforts to expand the use of coal energy, reduce requirements for environmental review and permitting, weaken feedlot regulations, and on and on. Thankfully now that committee deadlines are here, it will sharpen the focus for the rest of session and give us time to get to high ground. Certainly some of the bad ideas can come back as floor amendments, but generally committee deadlines narrow the amount of bad ideas we have to fend off for the rest of the session. Therefore, stay engaged. Although the flood is receding, there is still plenty of work to do the rest of session.
*High Water appeared on the “Love and Theft” album which was singer-songwriter Bob Dylan’s 31st studio album, released by Columbia Records in September 2001.