Why MEP and our allies chose to take a stand
By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
On Wednesday, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and eight partnering organizations served the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget (MMB) with a lawsuit challenging the Legislature’s raid on the constitutionally-dedicated Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund in order to pay for infrastructure projects.
This raid is unprecedented. If left unchallenged, it would set a dangerous precedent for more raids on this and other dedicated funds in the future.
In our 20-year history, MEP has never before joined or engaged in litigation to support our mission, and we don’t take to this decision lightly. But this action by the Legislature is an especially troubling case.
It violates our state’s constitution and the will of Minnesota voters, and is fiscally irresponsible. It jeopardizes the viability of the Environmental Trust Fund, and thereby threatens the important and necessary projects it supports to improve Minnesota’s natural resources and public health.
The Environmental Trust Fund is meant as a sustainable tool for improving our environment
Since it was created by voters via constitutional amendment in 1988, the Trust Fund has provided funding for projects to tackle Minnesota’s critical environmental issues. It’s contributed to habitat restoration, research on pollutants that make people sick, and advancements in our clean energy economy. (To learn more, see the full list of ENRTF-funded projects.) The Trust Fund receives its money from the state lottery and investments on that income, and is intended in the law to be a “long-term, consistent, and stable source of funding.” It stays that way by generally paying out cash in fiscally sustainable amounts.
The statute governing the fund, passed in the same legislation as its creation and reflecting the concerns of voters, does not permit it to be used for wastewater treatment or solid waste disposal. These are important and necessary projects. But they’re essential and basic government responsibilities that are traditionally funded with regular bonding.
The Legislature broke precedent and ignored these conditions
During the 2018 session, the Legislature arbitrarily limited itself to passing a set level of general obligation bonds (regular bonds). Instead of using these inexpensive bonds to pay for all wastewater treatment and landfill upgrades, the Legislature made use of a financially irresponsible gimmick. Not only did they decide that the Environmental Trust Fund would be used to make payments for $98 million worth of these types of projects, but they would do so via appropriation bonds – bonds that carry much higher interest rate than general obligation bonds.
The estimated cost increase from using these appropriation bonds instead: $35 million.
Essentially, the Legislature decided that they could avoid making the political choice to modestly raise the level of general obligation bonding to pay for these projects. Instead, they would create a false choice, pitting essential waste and water infrastructure against 20 years of new and promising environmental projects desired by the voters – who have consistently supported the Trust Fund.
And once the laws and values that govern the Trust Fund are successfully ignored, it sets an easily-used precedent for more raids that could leave the voter-created fund drained and non-viable.
A lack of respect for the public will
The Legislative process for passing this raid was seemingly designed to avoid public scrutiny. The raid was added to the omnibus bonding bill late in the day on the last day of the session, at a hearing where no public comment was taken.
Governor Mark Dayton signed the bonding bill, despite his disapproval of the raid, because it was bundled with other important projects. But he urged the next Legislature to fix the raid and protect the Trust fund.
Last month, MEP Executive Director Steve Morse testified to the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which oversees the fund’s disbursement, to ask them not to proceed with these projects. Their response was to suggest that if MEP and its allies believed the raid to be unconstitutional, we should simply sue the state.
We seek a long-term solution to protect the Trust Fund and upgrade our infrastructure
We’re allied on this lawsuit with these fellow members of Minnesota’s conservation community:
- Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
- Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance
- Friends of the Mississippi River
- Izaak Walton League – Minnesota Division
- Clean Water Action
- Fresh Energy
- Friends of Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas
- And Minnesota Native Plant Society
…because we know that Minnesotans value the long-term health of all our resources. We value our water, our air, our wildlife, and the health of our communities. We value responsible funding for our infrastructure. We value our Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
See further litigation coverage from: MPR News, Star Tribune, Duluth News Tribune, MinnPost, Bluestem Prairie