Capitol Update for February 27, 2009

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“Day or night or good weather or bad made no difference with John Beargrease; he was sure to arrive some time with the mail intact.”
– Willis H. Raff, Pioneers in the Wilderness*

John Beargrease, born in 1858, was the son of an Anishinabe chief who lived on the edge of Beaver Bay some 50 miles north of Duluth on the North Shore of Lake Superior.  He grew up learning Anishinabe traditions of trapping and subsistence living along one of the most unforgiving coastlines in America.  As white settlers started to develop small fishing villages along the North Shore, they were isolated from the rest of the world on this rough coast because it lacked a road.  Mail was delivered by boat, but as the bays on these northern shores iced in for the winter months, these villages became completely isolated.  The Beargrease family took up the challenge in 1879 of delivering the mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais, with occasional trips to Grand Portage.

For 20 years John and his brothers used the knowledge of their Anishinabe fur trading traditions to zigzag across the rocky and unforgiving shoreline of the great lake by dogsled.  John became legendary for battling the elements of deep snow and bone chilling cold.  His determination and resourcefulness made him a folk hero on the North Shore.  As a result, one of the most prestigious dogsled marathons carries his name to this day as it travels along the routes he would often take.

As I imagine Beargrease carefully picking his way through the challenging coastlines, it must have been similar to trying to get a bill through the legislative process.  You pick a path that looks very promising at first, only to end up having to backtrack and start over as you run into obstacles like fallen trees or impassable creeks along the way.  Fortunately, this week two of MEP’s collaborative agenda issues continued to move down that challenging path with success despite some obstacles.

On Tuesday, the Building Sensible Communities bill (HF898/SF549) kept moving forward.  The Senate Transportation Budget and Policy Division took a look at the portion of the bill which requires the Department of Transportation to weigh alternatives to projects on the scale of which will reduce vehicle miles traveled.  The legislation did pass out of the committee, but on a party line vote.  This was the first time the debate over this legislation took a partisan tone, but that seemed due to some odd circumstances. The trip got a little rocky when University of Minnesota professor Dr. Julian Marshall showed a PowerPoint slide which was a play on a historic ad from World War II encouraging carpooling.  The old historical ad said, “When you ride ALONE, you ride with Hitler! Join a car-sharing club TODAY!”  In Dr. Marshall’s next PowerPoint slide, Hitler was replaced with a photo of Osama bin Laden.  The obvious meaning was the more we drive, the more we support some foreign interests that often detest America.

Apparently Sen. Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) took the slight play on history a little too personally.  She pointed out that she drove to the Capitol alone and took a personal affront to the slide.  She spared no time in scolding Dr. Marshall.  Most observers felt she did protest too much, but it still resulted in a partisan divide despite past committees giving it unanimous support.  Our Senate chief author, Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), was very resourceful in meeting this challenge. We anticipate this will only be a minor obstacle on what should continue to be a successful course through the Senate.

The bill also had an information hearing in the joint committee of the House Environment and Transportation Policy committees Tuesday evening.  The committees were reviewing the Governor’s Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group recommendations on transportation issues.  That advisory group of stakeholders selected by the Governor was charged with the job of identifying policies that would help the state reach its global warming reduction goals established two years ago by the Legislature.  In the transportation sector the biggest gains for the least cost would come from the proposals similar to those included in the Building Sensible Communities bill.

This report also recommended adoption of the Clean Car Standards and as a result, Scott Lambert of the auto dealers gave testimony which was clearly intended to make the legislative committee believe the report was biased towards the environmental agenda.  Fortunately, the other advisory group members who testified quickly dispelled that myth and the Clean Car chief author Melissa Hortman (DFL – Brooklyn Park) dispelled any doubt by pointing out that Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty hand picked each of the advisory group members from a broad spectrum of interest groups with a tilt towards business interests.

The Minnesota Clean Cars Bill made its first steps forward in the Senate on Thursday evening.  It was after a long hearing in front of the Senate Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee which concluded after 7 p.m.  Meanwhile, a late winter Minnesota blizzard was swirling outside of our committee windows which caused the John Beargrease analogy came to my mind.  Most other committees canceled their afternoon hearings because of the weather.  Legislators typically don’t like to hang around too late on Thursday anyway because they like to start heading for home for the weekend.  With the blizzard starting up around noon, the Capitol was already a wasteland by the beginning of the hearing at 4:00 p.m.  Nonetheless, chair Yvonne Prettner Solon (DFL-Duluth) pressed on with a determination that would have made John Beargrease proud as she plowed through three hours of testimony, determined to have a vote.

As a result of Thursday afternoon and the weather, the committee size dwindled, but several of our supporters stuck around to the bitter end to give support for the bill as it passed on an 8 to 3 vote.  The following senators are winners of my John Beargrease award for endurance in the face of a blizzard: chair Prettner Solon, Ellen Anderson (DFL – St. Paul), Jim Carlson (DFL- Eagan), Kevin Dahle (DFL – Northfield), Scott Dibble (DFL – Minneapolis), John Doll (DFL – Burnsville), Sandy Rummel (DFL – White Bear Lake) and Kathy Sheran (DFL – Mankato).  The next move for the bill in the Senate is to the Environment Policy Committee.  The bill will take its second step in the House next week when it arrives for a hearing in the Environment Policy Committee.

There were still a lot of questions on the Clean Car Bill regarding ethanol and the ability of Minnesota to modify the rules established by California.  In particular, Sen. Kathy Sheran expressed concerns about the unknowns around ethanol and was hoping for clearer answers as the bill moves forward.  We continue to answer these questions, but the opposition continues to raise them over and over despite providing weak to no proof that these concerns are legitimate.  In the legislative process it is always much easier to kill an item by simply repeating assertions to create doubt.  We will likely face more of this type of obstacle down the trail.  Fortunately, thanks to some determined and discerning senators, the Clean Car Bill is still moving down the trail intact even in the midst of a blizzard.  This is probably good news given the fact that the Legislature will face a major obstacle when the February forecast is reported next week.  Stay tuned for more challenges on the trail of this legislative session.

*Quote taken from Minnesota 150: The People, Places, and Things That Shaped Our State, Kate Roberts, Minnesota Historical Press, 2007, page 11.

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