Capitol News on Woodchuck Day

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This week’s update from MEP lobbyist John Tuma:

Early Success Is Sweet, but Predictions of Difficult Weather Ahead. 

February 2 marks one of the more unusual observances in American folklore – Groundhog’s Day.  This unusual observance arose out of Pennsylvania from a combination of an old German tradition and the local Native American’s reverence of the groundhog.  The German tradition is that the weather on Candlemas Day (the date halfway between winter solstice and the spring equinox) predicts the severity of the last six weeks of winter.  The German farmers adopted the local reverence of the groundhog (actually not a groundhog, but what most Minnesota farmers know as the pesky woodchuck) and made his shadow observation in the morning the instrument of prediction.  Therefore, legend has it in the Pennsylvania hamlet of Gobbler’s Knob that if their most honored pest Punxsutawney Phil, seer of seers and prognosticator of prognosticators sees his shadow on February 2, the last six weeks of winter will be blustery and cold.  If old Phil doesn’t see his shadow, the last six weeks of winter will be pleasant and calm.

Environmental lobbyists are worried and wondering whether our legislative initiatives seeing early success as of February 2nd will forecast six weeks of difficult challenges ahead in the legislative process.  Certainly this week has given a great deal of positive sunshine on the Renewable Energy Standard and the Great Lakes Compact, which we believe is projecting a delightful shadow of success to come.  If no major problems arise, we would expect that these initiatives actually may become law in the next couple weeks.

The Renewable Energy Standard (RES) finally found success in the Senate Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee on Thursday.  After weeks of intense negotiations a tentative agreement was reached between the utilities, business interests, the Governor’s office and Clean Energy Minnesota legislative team members.  This agreement was embraced by the committee’s Chair Yvonne Prettner-Solon (DFL-Duluth) and the author of the RES bill, SF4, Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul).  SF4 passed out of the committee with unanimous consent and will move directly to the Senate floor.  It could be up for consideration on the Senate floor as early as next week.

The compromise, as is the case in most legislative compromises, contains several elements but remained surprisingly simple given the multiple parties that were involved in the discussions.  One of the top lines to take away from the Senate’s compromise is that 25% of our electrical generation by 2020 will be coming from good clean renewable energy sources.  “Good” in the sense that we were able to keep off proposals to count Manitoba Hydro, WAPA Hydro, Iron Range coal gasification and many other less than desirable “renewable” energy ideas.  We also were able to obtain some very good transmission planning provisions that allow us to push utilities to arrive at the standards without delay.  To get to the 25% figure, we did consent to allowing Xcel count their Prairie Island mandated renewable obligation in exchange for them moving more quickly on deploying renewable energy.  Therefore, the “new” renewable obligation is less than 25% by 2020, but overall if this proposal is adopted it would represent the most aggressive renewable energy standard in the nation.

The companion to SF4 in the House of Representatives (HF4) is authored by Rep. Aaron Peterson (DFL – Appleton).  The House members were not part of the negotiations that produced the compromise that unanimously passed out of the Senate committee.  Therefore, it is not yet clear what the House leaders will do with the compromise language.  HF4 had its first hearing on Wednesday in the House Energy Finance and Policy Division chaired by Rep. Bill Hilty (DFL – Finlayson) where it received only public testimony and no votes were taken.  Chair Hilty and Rep. Peterson are confident HF4 will receive a positive reception by the committee and could possibly be stronger than the Senate’s effort.  Therefore, there is still some work ahead, but we’re fairly confident it should move towards a positive resolution quickly with a RES that is no less than that established by the Senate.

The RES of course is only a part of our energy platform.  The bills on global warming, conservation and next-generation biofuels initiatives supported by MEP are still to come.  Everyone accepted that the RES was the easiest of our proposals.  Therefore, old Punxsutawney Phil given the effects of global warming may still be right, the next six weeks may become quite stormy and challenging.

Another early sign of success came with the full House approving the Great Lakes Compact (HF110) on a strong 97 to 35 vote.  Minnesota is already a leader on preserving our Great Lakes and the Compact only pushes our neighbors to rise to our standards.  Unfortunately, some legislators still had doubts about this bill.  Thankfully we had a good champion authoring the Compact bill in Rep. Thomas Huntley (DFL -Duluth).  The expectation is that the bill will move with greater ease through the Senate and it should become law without much problem given the Governor’s support.

Though the sun has been shining on us so far the legislative process still presents significant challenges ahead.  The Clean Water Legacy only received $20 million in the Governor’s budget proposal, which is well short of the $100 million a year needed.  The constitutional amendment that would dedicate needed investments in our Great Outdoors has stalled in the Senate and will just be introduced in the House this week.  Therefore, your continued effort will be critical over the next six weeks.  One of the biggest things you can do to help is by producing our biggest turnouts for MEP Capitol Day on Wednesday, February 21.  A big turnout will be critical for maintaining the momentum through the rest of session and will help produce success whether the skies are cloudy or sunny.

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