Capitol Update

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John Tuma, former State Representative and current Government Relations Associate (lobbyist) for MEP, provides weekly updates during the legislative session on what’s happening at the capitol.  Here’s his first:

Back to School.

More than once while stumbling through the halls of the Capitol this first week we lobbyists have joked that it reminded us of the first day of school when we were kids.  Seeing old acquaintances, catching up on summer vacation stories, and checking out those new, more sophisticated lunch boxes we call briefcases.  I have often criticized the culture of the Capitol as being too much like perpetual high school, i.e., petty, cliquey, and brutal to those who challenge the norm with new ideas.  Even though the beginning of this legislative session is fairly similar to past years, there seems to be a new excitement in the spring-like warm air around the Capitol, and it may have a lot to do with global warming in more ways than one.

Organizations that make up the Minnesota Environmental Partnership made a decision early on before the election to work on a very aggressive legislative agenda this year.  As you know, our three big issues this year focus on protecting our Great Outdoors by:

  • A meaningful Clean Energy Vision for Minnesota’s future;
  • The full $100 million investment in the Clean Water Legacy Act; and
  • A dedicated source of investments in our Great Outdoors to reverse the loss of clean water and critical habitat.

Our three-part agenda has gained wide acceptance amongst the new leaders in the Legislature.  Our lobbying focus has become more about helping shape the direction as opposed to begging for attention.  After being forgotten remedial students sent to some dingy classroom in the back of the building for most of the last five years, it feels strange to now be teacher’s pet.  This is creating some new challenges, but believe me, we’re not complaining!  These are problems that we like to have.

Evidence of our newfound attention was the Senate’s inclusion of the renewable energy standard, one of the bedrocks of our Clean Energy Minnesota proposal, and dedicated funding as part of their top six priority bills for the upcoming session.  Having two of our issues in the top six, standing alongside education, property tax and health care is in itself a major victory for the environmental community.  Clean Water Legacy has not been lost in the process.  It continues to be mentioned as one of the major funding initiatives when spending priorities for the surplus are discussed.  The Minneapolis Star Tribune included it as one of the top priorities to be addressed in the next legislative session.

Unfortunately, the fact that the legislators are infatuated with our issues at the beginning of a session does not always translate into good laws being passed.  There is still a great deal of hard work ahead of us if we are going to turn this new-found attention into meaningful environmental legislation.  There are at least five utility lobbyists behind each pillar in the Capitol, and I think they specialize in handing out red herrings by the barrel.  It takes a lot of shoe leather and hard work to dispel all the myths and rumors about how renewable energy will not work. 

Even though the legislators are sharing our desire in the Clean Water Legacy Act to clean up the state’s lakes, streams and rivers there are 201 of them that have multiple ideas on how to spend the surplus on other things.  I’m sure if you add up all the great spending ideas, you would easily spend the surplus a couple dozen times.  Our environmental spending is at a 30-year low, and we will not make a meaningful dent in our effort to clean up our polluted lakes unless there is a real investment of $100 million a year in new money.

Further examples of the complicated “environmental love fest” that we have entered into is the fact that the first set of introductions in the Senate included two different dedicated funding bills.  The first was SF6 authored by Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller (DFL- Minneapolis).  This was one of the advertised top six priorities from the Senate DFL Majority and was essentially the bill that passed off the Senate floor last year dedicating 3/8ths of a sales-tax increase to outdoor conservation and recreation, parks and trails, the Clean Water Legacy, and the arts and humanities.  Also part of this week’s first introductions was SF20 authored by the new Senate Environmental Policy Committee chair Satveer Chaudhary (DFL – Fridley).  This bill dedicated 1/4th of a new sales tax to conservation, parks and trails, and the Clean Water Legacy, but no arts.  Neither bill, unfortunately, rises to the level of investments in conservation sought by our proposal, which focuses on infusion of dollars through bonding.  Further, these proposals would leave the Clean Water Legacy woefully short of the necessary investment identified by the broad array of stakeholders that brought this initiative forward.

The history of environmental progress in Minnesota has been one of large leaps forward over a short period of time followed by years of waiting.  We are facing one of those great leaps ahead in this next legislative session.  Therefore, it is more critical than ever to redouble our efforts and make our voices heard at the Capitol.  There is a tendency within our activists to think that this newfound affection will somehow produce a real commitment towards environmental protection.  Anybody knows that real commitment comes only with a lot of hard dedicated work. 

Therefore, we strongly encourage you to show up for the upcoming MEP events.  First, make sure to come to the Legislative Forum this Monday at the Science Museum.  The Forum will feature the first public speech to the environmental community by the new PCA Commissioner Brad Moore, along with an opportunity to hear from clean energy champion Senator Ellen Anderson and the new Speaker, Margaret Anderson-Kelliher.  It is also critical that we have our largest turnout ever at this year’s Capitol Rally on Wednesday, February 21st.  Get those dates on your calendars! 

Finally, all of us at MEP look forward to working with you again in the coming session and are hoping to bring you some positive news through this weekly column.  Thank you for your continued support of this great cooperative effort.  This could be the year all your hard work will have a big payoff for the environment.

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