An environmentalist’s guide to the new legislature

Posted by .

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

While the U.S. House of Representatives has had what might generously be called a rocky start, the new Minnesota Legislature has gotten rightto work. With new faces, new committee leaders and new legislation, the time is ripe to get things done at the state Capitol.

Working with our members and allies, MEP has crafted a set of Collaborative Priorities for 2023 that will guide our legislative advocacy efforts. Our full list of policy ideas is long, but we focus on three overarching priorities: robust and just climate action, people and planet-centered public institutions, and environmental justice for all Minnesotans. From solar panels to safe drinking water pipes to habitat restoration, we’re calling on the new Legislature to go big on protecting our future.

Perhaps the most vital part of our effort is mobilizing and lifting up the voices of ordinary Minnesotans who care about clean air, safe water, and healthy communities. We’ll be publishing action alerts throughout the session. But to kick off the year, we’d like to offer this guide to this year’s Legislature to all interested Minnesotans. We strongly encourage our readers to contact your Senators and Representatives on any issue that concerns you – we’ve heard time and again that constituent voices are highly important to elected officials, and can sway their views on critical issues.

Legislative Leadership

Speaker of the House: Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Center
House Majority Leader: Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis
House Majority Whip: Athena Hollins, DFL-Saint Paul

House Minority Leader: Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring
House Deputy Minority Leader: Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska

Senate Majority Leader: Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis
Senate President: Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis
Senate Minority Leader: Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks

Agriculture Committees

House Agriculture Finance & Policy
Chair: Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Center
Vice Chair: Kristi Pursell, DFL-Northfield
Republican Lead: Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck

Senate Agriculture, Broadband, and Rural Development
Chair: Aric Putnam, DFL-Saint Cloud
Vice Chair: Robert Kupec, DFL-Moorhead
Ranking Minority Member: Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake

Food and farming are of huge importance in Minnesota, which has the fifth-largest agricultural economy in the nation. Unfortunately, the sector is also one of the three largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. This cycle’s Agriculture committee members should take a close look at how we can reduce farming’s climate impact while supporting farming communities and Minnesotans’ livelihoods. Fortunately, MEP and our allies have plenty of ideas about how to move forward.

For more than two decades, MEP has successfully focused on winning investments in regenerative agriculture. We’ve won historic funding for the Forever Green Initiative, a University of Minnesota program that develops new crops that protect water, promote healthy soil, and can help reduce climate and pesticide pollution. We’ve also helped secure state dollars for the supply chain investments needed to bring these crops into the market. Last year, with bipartisan support, these investments and other agriculture wins were among the few bright spots of an otherwise unproductive legislative session.

This year, we hope to continue building on these investments and moving forward on other programs that support farmers and the lands and waters we depend on. That includes programs that help new farmers – often the most likely to embrace sustainable agriculture practices – start farming successfully. We’ll also push for more state support for farming practices that can help our climate, including soil healthy techniques.

In addition to these proactive measures, we’ll be supporting a statewide animal unit cap to restrict the growth of higher density feeding operations, which are major contributors to water, air, and climate pollution in our state. 

Capital Investment Committees

House Capital Investment
Chair: Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis
Vice Chair: Liz Reyer, DFL-Eagan
Republican Lead: Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City

Senate Capital Investment
Chair: Sandra Pappas, DFL-Saint Paul
Vice Chair: Susan Pha, DFL-Brooklyn Park
Ranking Minority Member: Karin Housley, R-Stillwater

The Legislature’s Capital Investment committees are focused on the state’s infrastructure – the roads, bridges, buildings, and water systems on which our economy relies. The committees work to identify areas of need and craft bills to pay for repairs and upgrades, usually using state bonds. That allows Minnesota to pay the tab for these upgrades over the course of multiple years at low interest rates. The committees’ work is especially crucial for smaller communities that may have difficulty paying for their own water infrastructure or other large projects.

Traditionally, the Legislature works to pass a “bonding bill” in even-numbered years, but as was a common theme in 2022, no bonding bill moved forward last year. With unified state government, the Capital Investment committees should have more success this year. But anything they pass will need at least some bipartisan support: bonding bills must pass with a 60% majority in both chambers.

MEP hopes that, rather than repeating 2022, the 2023 Legislature will emulate the bipartisan achievement of 2020. That year, they passed more than $300 million in money for water infrastructure – a huge step forward for Minnesotans and the waters we depend on. This year, we’ll be asking for at least another $300 million for water investments to keep the good work going and help access federal matching funds. This will include money to replace lead drinking water pipes that threaten many Minnesotans’ health.

Climate and Energy Committees

House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy
Chair: Patty Acomb, DFL-Minnetonka
Vice Chair: Larry Kraft, DFL-St. Louis Park
Republican Lead: Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent

Senate Energy, Utilities, Environment, and Climate
Chair: Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato
Vice Chair: Tou Xiong, DFL-Maplewood
Ranking Minority Member: Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton

House Sustainable Infrastructure Policy
Chair: Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park
Vice Chair: Brion Curran, DFL-Vadnais Heights
Republican Lead: Mary Franson, R-Alexandria

Minnesota has a good record of setting high goals for emissions reductions, exemplified by the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 and Governor Walz’s Climate Action Framework released last year. But we don’t have a great record of meeting our emissions reduction goals. Even as wind and solar energy ramp up and coal plants retire, we’re not close to meeting the goals we’ve set. As the fastest-warming state in the country, we can’t afford to fall behind – we should be leading the climate action charge.

We’ve been encouraged by promises from this year’s Legislators to pass historic climate legislation, and we’ll be calling for lawmakers to not only pass strong goals and standards, but to use state dollars to make them a reality. In the Climate and Energy Committees, this will include both reducing the energy we consume through efficiency upgrades for homes and businesses and cleaning up the energy we produce by accelerating the uptake of wind and solar power. Fortunately, recent federal laws like the bipartisan infrastructure act and the Inflation Reduction Act have made plenty of federal matching dollars available for Minnesota to go green.

We also support new laws that help our state make more equitable and climate-friendly decisions when it comes to big projects. For example, the state Environmental Quality Board recently directed state agencies to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions that would be incurred or saved through the adoption, construction and annual operation of proposed projects during environmental review. That change should be made part of state law to prevent it being easily rolled back in the future. With companies like Chevron, Enbridge, and PolyMet doing their best to promote their brands as “green,” this calculation would at least help give the public the facts and increase pressure to deny climate-harming proposals that harm local communities.

Environment and Legacy

House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy
Chair: Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul
Vice Chair: Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis
Republican Lead: Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa

House Legacy Finance
Chair: Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul
Vice Chair: Samakab Hussein, DFL-Saint Paul
Republican Lead: Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley

Senate Environment, Climate, and Legacy
Chair: Foung Hawj, DFL-Saint Paul
Vice Chair: Jennifer McEwen, DFL-Duluth
Ranking Minority Member: Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids

We’re very happy that the Senate Environment, Climate, and Legacy committee has a broad jurisdiction that includes the Department of Natural Resources, the Pollution Control Agency and the Board of Water and Soil Resources. The Senate took the initiative to recognize that climate change results from and affects multiple parts of our society and multiple committees will be able to address this critical issue. 

Simply put, MEP will have three broad goals when it comes to the Environment and Legacy Committees: moving forward on environmental justice and protecting our natural resources and communities, passing environment and legacy budgets that invest in climate action and habitat, and securing the future use of state Lottery proceeds and passage of the recommended Legacy funds.

The list of new policies MEP hopes to pass this year include restrictions on toxic lead, PFAS and pesticides, protections against sulfide mining, and many others too numerous to list here (you can find them in our Collaborative Priorities). But there are a couple worth highlighting in this article as core to our work.

The Cumulative Impacts Bill is a key priority of MEP and environmental justice leaders. It would require MPCA to evaluate the long-term, compounding impacts of pollution from projects undergoing permitting on communities that will be impacted by the project. Historically, communities of color and low-income communities have suffered the worst pollution in our state, being subjected to toxic industries and interstate highways, among other sources, in their neighborhoods. If the state is serious about environmental justice, we need to ensure that these deep-seated harms aren’t made even worse by new, harmful projects.

We also hope the legislature will reverse one of its worst decisions from 2015 – the elimination of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board. The Citizens’ Board was one of the few tools that ordinary Minnesotans had to conduct citizen oversight of polluting projects, which are too often advantaged by state permitting laws. It had the power to make final MPCA decisions, like require tighter conditions for project permits or deny them entirely.

After the Board used its power to demand a full environmental impact study for a massive dairy operation, the Legislature abolished it over the objections of then-Governor Mark Dayton. Since then, many have wondered whether the MPCA would have made the same decisions on permits for the Line 3 pipeline or the PolyMet mine if it still answered to citizen oversight.

In addition to environmental policy, we hope to see the Legislature leverage our Legacy Funds to invest in our natural resources, just as they did last session. And they should look to the future by ensuring that re-authorization and a boost in funding for the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund is on the 2024 ballot for voters to approve.

Transportation Committees

House Transportation Finance and Policy
Chair: Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis
Vice Chair: Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee
Republican Lead: John Petersburg, R-Waseca

Senate Transportation
Chair: Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis
Vice Chair: Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven
Ranking Minority Member: John Jasinski, R-Faribault

Transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in the state of Minnesota, and unfortunately, it’s among the hardest to fix. Most of these emissions are driven by personal vehicles, especially in the Twin Cities Metro region. Thanks to many decades of prioritizing these vehicles over dense land use and public transportation, carbon emissions have ballooned, especially with the consumer trend toward bigger vehicles. That’s an especially big problem for low-income and diverse communities, where air pollution and traffic hazards tend to hit the hardest.

All that is to say that the Transportation Committees have their work cut out for them, and what they achieve will be a big factor in Minnesota’s claim to climate leadership.

The number one thing we hope they accomplish is reinvesting in our transit systems, especially Metro Transit. In the midst of pandemic disruptions to ridership and nationwide hiring challenges, agencies have cut or reduced frequency on many routes, creating a vicious cycle where ridership reduces further due to poor service. The Legislature can help fix this by ensuring a dedicated source of transit operating funding through a small metro-area sales tax. Legislators should also ensure that Minnesota can access matching federal funds for upgrading and electrifying transit infrastructure around the state.

MEP will also strategically engage in discussions on an updated low carbon fuel standard. While this standard could support growth in electric vehicles or sustainable low carbon Forever Green-developed crops like camelina or pennycress, it could alternatively be an environmental negative if it boosts corn-based ethanol.

The big picture

These committees aren’t the only avenue for environmental policies to move forward. We hope and expect for bills to be heard in other arenas, like the Health and Taxes committees, as environmental issues touch every aspect of life in Minnesota. And if you have an environmental issue specific to your community that you think the Legislature should address, your district’s legislators are often open to discussion.

We encourage our subscribers to follow this session closely, and make your voice heard. We need all hands on deck for our people and our planet.

For previous columns, visit If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at

Comments are closed.