Capitol Update for May 29, 2009

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This week’s Update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“When we ended our cruise and our canoes grated on a sandy beach for the last time our hearts were heavy and yet how happy.”
– Sigurd Olson, The Nashwauk Herald, July 22, 1921

Sigurd Olson is a giant in Minnesota’s conservation history as one of the leading voices through the mid-1900s for the preservation of wild places like our beloved Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park. He was also an acclaimed writer, penning his classic The Singing Wilderness in 1956, a must-read for any environmental activist. So respected was Olson that his likeness is one of only a few busts displayed within our State Capitol. It seems almost providential that Olson’s bust stands guard to Capitol committee room 107 where most of the Senate environment and conservation issues are addressed. The very committee room that saw this year’s Legacy Amendment conference committee conclude its work providing the first set of critical investments for lakes, rivers and wild places that will span 25 years.

What’s interesting about the above quote is that it comes from a 1921 article recently discovered in the archives of the local paper in the town where Olson first taught after college. If the timing is accurate, this would probably be his first article on wilderness travel describing his first trip into the Boundary Waters. The article shows glimpses of his later descriptive genius of wilderness travel. Thanks to the Ike’s Kevin Proescholdt, my favorite wilderness historian, for sharing this interesting piece of history.

Just like that satisfying last paddle stroke as you cruise into a Boundary Waters landing at the end of a trip, the last edition of my session musings is always dedicated to recognizing those in the Legislature who championed the environmental cause. I’m probably violating some sort of copyright or writers’ etiquette, but I have affectionately called these recognitions my “Sig” awards in honor Sigurd Olson.

First, a disclaimer. These are my personal suggestions alone. They are only my impressions as an old, overweight voyager who has traveled the wilds we call the legislative session in years gone by. I recognize there are many who could be honorable mentions. This year’s Legislature has many individuals who have fought passionately for the protection of our Great Outdoors and would be too numerous to include. So here is my call for the three Sig awards for 2009, but feel free to add your thoughts below.

Rookie of the Year. There are many freshmen legislators attempting to catch their stride on environmental issues, just like Sig was trying to catch his stride back in 1921 as a writer. The one that stood out to me was Rep. Gail Kulick Jackson (DFL- Milaca) during the long House floor debate on whether to remove the prohibition on nuclear power plant construction in Minnesota. Kulick Jackson came to the Legislature through a very tough race winning by only 89 votes in what is considered a very conservative district; a district that is close to a nuclear power plant and the state’s largest coal power plant with many of the workers living in her district. In her race for election she committed to supporting nuclear power, but after a very thoughtful consideration of the facts through her service on the House’s energy committee she changed her mind. The concerns regarding the long-term storage questions and other problems arising from the nuclear option led to her changing her position. It’s always refreshing to see a legislator actually consider the facts and be willing to use good judgment.

Instead of dodging the issue like many “nervous Nellie” freshmen, she courageously stood up on the floor and gave an excellent speech outlining her change of heart that was more befitting a seasoned veteran. Instead of running from the issue she stood on principles. As I am sure Sigurd Olson learned in his years of battling to preserve Minnesota’s wild places, it is not the use of power or influence that the produces environmental wins, but rather statesmen standing on principal. For her principled stance and statesmanlike courage to do the right thing, Gail Kulick Jackson has earned a Sig award.

Rising Star. One of the more rewarding things for me after being around the Capitol halls as long as I have is to see one of our young environmental champions start to catch their legislative stride. This year’s rising star is without a doubt Rep. Kate Knuth (DFL – New Brighton). She has already played critical roles on our behalf with regards to global warming and other key environmental issues, in no small part because she is really smart. What was evident this year as a chief author of two critical bills on toxic chemicals was her ability to guide the legislation as opposed to just carrying it. I’ve learned from my many years of Boundary Waters canoe travels that pretty much anybody can paddle a canoe, but it takes an extra special ability to really guide a successful trip. The same is true for being a good legislative author. Any legislator can get up to talk and push a button, but it takes a special ability to guide legislation through the process. Rep. Knuth shows a deep passion for, and intellectual understanding of, the issue she takes on, but this year we started to see her showing the necessary patient savviness that makes a good legislative author.

When the bills dealing with the toxic chemicals were taking a beating both in the Senate and in the conference committee as a result of strong opposition from chemical lobbyists with support from the Governor’s office, she didn’t fold. She saw the dilemma clearly and carefully positioned the legislation to get as much out of this year as she could while still working to build alliances for the future fight. Sig would have been pleased to see her carefully working on building those alliances with fellow legislators in the halls outside the conference committee, only a stone’s throw from his bust. The forces of toxicity had better beware, that is the kind of deadly combination of moxie and brains that I’ve seen in other successful environment champions, such as former Representatives Dee Long and Willard Munger. Therefore, Rep. Kate Knuth is well deserving of a Sig and hopefully many more for years to come.

Environmental Champion of the Year. There wasn’t much debate from my Green Team lobbying colleagues when I mentioned who I felt was the hardest working amongst our environmental champions at the Legislature this year. Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL – Minneapolis) was like one of the veteran Voyagers of old who used to ply the waters of Sig’s beloved border country: a combination of commitment, versatility, endurance, and a touch of sly cunning. Sen. Dibble and fellow chief author Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL – Minneapolis) used all those skills to achieve some of our goals in our Building Sensible Communities initiative. They were able to creatively finesse the language of our initiative to keep it alive through multiple committees. When it was clear that a stand-alone bill could possibly be vetoed by the Governor, they creatively tucked away several of the provisions in multiple omnibus bills — a crafty move that increases the odds of success, but takes a great deal of work to manage as a chief author.

In addition to Building Sensible Communities, Sen. Dibble repeatedly played the role of key defender of many environmental initiatives that were under attack. He was a vital player along with Rep. Bill Hilty (DFL –Finlayson) in fending off the repeal of the nuclear power plant ban. He was also the chief negotiator in preserving transit funding. It is no small feat in a year where we faced a multibillion-dollar deficit to be able to walk away from session and say that transit funding was preserved without the need for a farebox increase. They had to use some creative financing, but that’s just more proof of his stature as a veteran environmental champion. Therefore, this year’s Sig award goes to a well deserving Sen. Scott Dibble.

Ahh . . . we’ve come to the end of another legislative journey where “our canoes grated on a sandy beach for the last time” this year. We are fortunate to have arrived safely through another voyage. The MEP team is not only grateful for the work of champions like Rep. Kulick Jackson, Rep. Knuth and Sen. Dibble, but also for all those hard-working citizen activists like you who make our efforts possible. Your willingness to attend meetings, send letters, make phone calls, and simply be active in your communities makes our success possible. This was evident this year more than ever as a result of the passage of the constitutional amendment by overwhelming numbers last November. As an every day Capitol observer, it was evident that your voices were heard loud and clear with the passage of some critical investments in our Great Outdoors. As a result, the real work now begins out in the field restoring and protecting our Great Outdoors. Hope you have time this summer to get out to enjoy our Great Outdoors as we continue to work together to pass it on to the next generation.

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