Capitol Update for March 27, 2009

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“To the Chippewas that sprawling series of lakes and rivers known as the Kawashaway was a land of the mystery.”
–  Sigurd Olson, The Singing Wilderness, 1956

On your Boundary Waters maps, the Kawashaway is now known as the Kawishiwi.  Yes, now that the spring rains are washing away winter I’m getting that BWCAW fever again.  I have W.A. Fisher maps and battling smallmouth bass on my mind.  To make things worse, my spring edition of the Boundary Waters Journal came in the mail this week with stories of Fourtown Lake where Wendy and I spent our honeymoon.  So it wasn’t too hard to grab my old copy of The Singing Wilderness to start reading the “Spring” chapters again and dream of that next trip.  While reading from chapter two “No Place Between,” the words jumped out at me where the venerable wilderness defender penned:

“To the Chippewas that sprawling series of lakes and rivers known as the Kawashaway was a land of the mystery.  Bounded by brooding stands of pine, its waters were dark, their origins unknown.  According to the ancients, the land belonged to those who had gone, was forbidden to those who lived.  From the Algonquin Kaw meaning “no” and Ashaway meaning “the place between,” it took its name: “no place between,” a spirit land.  Primitive races all over the world have such places, their origins buried in mystery and forgotten legends.  Strange things have happened there, and the sense of awe and mystery is always present.”

The couple of weeks leading up to committee deadlines in the Legislature are another one of those mysterious places like the Kawashaway where strange things happen and much is a mystery.  Odd bills take on a life of their own without explanation.  Bills are killed without really dying, and others just fade away into the cold gray granite of the Capitol corridors.  Committee deadlines were created by legislative leaders in an attempt to bring some finality to legislative ideas.  The first of those deadlines is reached today (March 27) when all policy bills must have passed their policy committees in one of the bodies.  The second deadline will be reached right before legislators go on Easter break on Tuesday, April 7.  That deadline requires a bill to pass all the committees in both bodies to still be alive.

Deadline week is always hectic as legislators who have been laying around like dormant hibernating black bears in winter all of a sudden wake up with a sudden primitive urgency.  Committees that had been hearing a bill or two a day all of a sudden have agendas 20 plus bills deep with schedules that go late into the evening.  No matter how much leaders at the Legislature push committees, this strange phenomenon of chaotic processing of legislation occurs with the coming of spring, the origins of which are “buried in mystery and forgotten legends.”  As a result of this phenomenon, those of us who have lobbied for a number of years know that strange things happen here in the Kawashaway of the legislative process we call “deadline week.”

The question is what strange things happened to our collaborative agenda items as we raced up to the first deadline.  First, the Building Sensible Communities bill (SF549/HF898) had hearings scheduled this week in the Education Committees of both the House and Senate.  The House hearing will be after this Capitol Update goes to print.  The bill was in the Education Committees because of provisions that limit the power of the Commissioner of Education from rejecting a site for a new school simply based on size.  Present education law gives preference to larger lots which force many schools out into the cornfields, increasing the miles communities must travel and thus increasing global warming pollution.

As a result of some concerns raised by representatives on the school boards, our Senate author, Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), had to act quickly on his feet to modify the amendments to appease their concerns.  The resulting amendment actually improves local control and strengthens the possibility that schools can be redeveloped within the center of communities — a win-win for schools and a reduction of global warming pollution.  As a result, the bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee on Thursday with a strong voice vote.  The Committee liked the provision so much they also voted to put it in their omnibus bill so that it can be in two places, increasing its chance of passing.  Passing the Education Committee in the Senate was a significant milestone for the Building Sensible Communities team because this was the last policy committee.  This means with its passage the bill has met the first deadline.  We are confident the legislation will meet its second committee deadline with passage of the last two committees in the House by early next week.

Unfortunately for the Minnesota Clean Car legislation, the committee deadlines did not bring good news.  The chair of the State and Local Government committee, Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL – Winona), did not place the legislation back on the committee agenda for this week.  The bill did not make it out of its last policy committee in the House.  The bill has also been stalled in the Senate Environment Committee.  Therefore, the Minnesota Clean Car legislation did not make its committee deadlines, which means it’s now lost in the spirit world.  In other words, it is dead, but not really dead.  Remember old Sig’s words “strange things have happened there”?  Even though the bill is theoretically dead for not making committee deadlines, it can still be revived by an action by either chamber’s Rules Committee.  The idea can also find its way into another bill.  Interestingly in legislative terminology, the other bill an idea attaches itself to is referred to as a “vehicle bill.”

Suffering the same deadline fate was the Safe Mines legislation.  Neither the House nor Senate files received a hearing.  Adding to the strange nature of this legislation was the fact that the mining lobbyists actually like reading my weekly musings as evidenced by last week’s blog comments.  Therefore, to my mining friends out there reading this update, the bill is lost in the “no place between.”  So, we would advise a long vacation abroad; a visit to some of those foreign investors maybe.  Don’t worry, we won’t try anything while you are gone. Wink, wink.

Once the Legislature gets through its Kawashaway phase of deadlines, the seasons of the Legislature will shift into a new phase were each of the bodies will develop its budget proposals.  Frankly, the Legislature has been paralyzed by the significant budget problems it faces.  As a result, there has been very little vision or direction with regards to policy.  This lack of vision clearly has affected both the Clean Cars and Safe Mines legislation.  So far the Legislature has only sent seven small bills to the Governor for signature after being in session 12 weeks now.  About half as many bills were sent at this time two years ago.  Further adding to the struggle this week, the Governor made it clear to legislative leaders on Thursday in a closed-door meeting that he would not support any new taxes.  The Legislature now faces a very daunting task of trying to find a compromise on the budget with only seven weeks to go before the end of session.

Fortunately, thanks to the voters in Minnesota, investments in clean water, conservation and our parks and trails are well positioned with the money from the constitutional amendment.  An important occurrence this week on the water funding was the continued collaborative work by the group we affectionately know as the “G-16.”  This coalition of farming, business, local government, state agencies and environmental organizations continues to meet to help give guidance to the Clean Water Legacy portion of the constitutional amendment funding.  In keeping with that effort, the group has supported a package of funding which was introduced this week as SF1913/HF2128.  Our chief authors are Sen. Dennis Frederickson (R-New Ulm) and Rep. Kent Eken (DFL – Twin Valley).

The Kawashaway phase of the Legislature with its deadlines has been in part disappointing for the environmental and conservation community.  We are fortunate to be strongly positioned on funding issues in this extraordinarily difficult budget crisis as we now swing into the period where each body develops its budget bills. Eventually the seasons of the Legislature will move towards that final phase of conference committees and the global budget compromise.  These new seasons of the Legislature will give us opportunities to advance our agenda.  It will also mean long evenings of monitoring late evening processes.  If you’re around, it will give us a chance to pour over the Boundary Waters maps and tell BWCAW stories.  I might even share the story of the honeymoon on Fourtown Lake and the black bear.  It is a pretty funny story.

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