Capitol Update for April 6, 2007

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This week’s report from MEP’s Government Relations Associate, John Tuma:

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.” 
Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

America’s first published female author, Anne Bradstreet, probably knew a thing or two about adversity.  Arriving in America in 1630 as part of the “great migration” of English Puritans, those early American settlers in the unforgiving Northeast coast of America understood the significance of the changing seasons as they struggled for survival.  Those early New England Puritans were not unlike those of us in Minnesota who have survived the winter.  We all attribute positive and great significance to the signs of impending spring.  Like the seasons of the year, the legislative session has similar times of transition that you can see changing before your eyes.  The early portion of the session in the winter months has the committees slogging through the difficult process of winnowing down the agenda.  This process soon gives way to the spring months of long floor sessions where omnibus bills are debated and conference committees begin their action.  That is the transition we are in now.  The next transition occurs with a hint of summer in the air.  It is when the conference committees start wrapping up and the major compromises are developed while the leaves are turning fully green in the first part of May as we dream about the fishing opener.  Typically this means the end of session, but, unfortunately, a new season of the legislative process has emerged known as the hot and sticky dog days of special session.

We won’t worry about a special session yet.  It is only spring and the legislators are taking our Easter break, which is a good time to assess the progress of the Protect Minnesota’s Great Outdoors legislative agenda.  It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were sitting on a cool fall day in the stale atmosphere of the Kelly Inn with a hint of winter seeping through the poorly insulated windows as we voted on what would become the package of priority issues for the environmental community.  Here is where those priority issues are at with a little over six weeks to go before session ends (we hope):

Clean Energy Minnesota.  The four areas of focus of the Clean Energy Minnesota initiatives have seen a great deal of activity, adversity, and prosperity so far.

Renewable Energy Standard.  One of the first bills passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor was a nation-leading renewable energy standard that will require 25% of Minnesota’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020.  Exactly the goals set out by the environmental community at its meeting in the stale Kelly Inn.  A big victory for the Green Team.

Energy Efficiency. The Clean Energy Minnesota proposal to improve energy efficiency and conservation is on its way to a sure victory.  Energy efficiency is a critical part of the Clean Energy Minnesota strategy to reduce harmful global warming and other pollutions.  The cleanest energy in the world is the energy we do not produce.  Our Senate champion and chief author, Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), successfully guided the efficiency bill (SF997) through the full Senate.  Last Friday it was approved with an overwhelming 64 to 1 vote.  The House legislation that is very similar is expected to also get overwhelming support in the next couple of weeks.  All indications are that the Governor is prepared to sign the legislation.

Next Generation of Biofuels. Clean Energy Minnesota has put its support behind a proposal to develop ethanol and other biofuels through the use of environmentally friendly plants.  In particular, we have focused on diverse prairie grass because of its positive impact on water quality and habitat.  Legislation to promote the development of this next-generation biofuel has been moving forward, but it faces significant hurdles in the next season of the legislative session.  The Senate, under the leadership of the chief author Sen Gary Kubly (DFL – Granite Falls) and Agriculture Committee chairman Sen. Jim Vickerman (DFL – Tracy), has put together a good package with a focus on developing an industry around prairie grass.  Unfortunately, the House package lacks clarity on how the program would work.  Making it difficult is the fact that several of the provisions are spread across different omnibus bills.  Therefore, we expect there to be a significant amount of activity in the conference committees trying to put together a solid package that will develop an industry around environmentally friendly crops and practices for the next generation of bioenergy.

Global Warming Mitigation Act.  The legislation for ambitious, long-term global warming pollution reduction targets faces a great deal of adversity in the coming weeks.  The House Energy Finance and Policy Division has put its stamp of approval on a bill that is strongly supported by Clean Energy Minnesota.  That bill awaits action on the House floor.  Also, to hedge its bets, the House committee has put the Global Warming Mitigation Act provisions into an omnibus energy policy bill that will have to go through several additional committees.  The major challenge we face on the Global Warming Mitigation Act is around provisions that would prohibit electric utilities from building coal burning power plants without offsetting the global warming pollution in other places.  If we are facing a crisis of global warming because we produce too much pollution, it does not make any sense to create more before we start trying to solve the problem.  Unfortunately, that section of the proposal has drawn a significant amount of fire from some key leaders in the Senate.  As a result, the bill has not had a vote in the Senate Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Policy Committee chaired by Sen. Yvonne Prettner-Solon (DFL-Duluth).

Clean Water Legacy. Minnesota has failed to be good stewards of its water resources.  We have failed to effectively monitor our waters (we have only tested about 16%) and of those we have tested, over 40% are polluted so that they cannot be enjoyed for fishing or swimming.  The 2006 Legislature made a good start by providing $25 million toward the Clean Water Legacy initiatives.  However, if we want our children to have the same opportunities to enjoy our lakes and rivers we do, the state needs an investment of $100 million a year to clean up and protect our waters now. Unfortunately, the Senate has only recommended $54 million over the next two years.  The House also released their proposal for the Clean Water Legacy last week.  It is slightly less than the Senate amount.  The only advantage to the House funding is the fact that they proposed ongoing permanent funding for these programs where the Senate’s money is only for the next biennium.

A Dedicated Investment to Protect Our Great Outdoors.  The Legislature has slowly come to the conclusion that a constitutional dedication of a portion of the sales tax to the protection of our lakes, rivers, wetlands, forests, natural areas and parks is a wise idea.  The Senate has taken leadership on this by passing a proposal out of its initial committees last week.  The constitutional dedication faces its stiffest Senate challenge in the Senate Tax Committee chaired by Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL – Cook), which it must go to next.  The House bill was just recently introduced by House Majority Leader Rep. Tony Sertich (DFL – Chisholm).  Even though the bill has not met committee deadlines, the House has promised to move the bill through all of its committees which could number eight before it’s done.  This will be a tall order given there is only a little over six weeks of session left.  If the legislation makes progress in the next couple of weeks, the proposal will probably move quickly towards a positive conclusion.

Great Lakes Compact.  Another one of the early successes was the legislation that ratifies the agreement between all of the Great Lakes states that protects the diversion of our Great Lakes water resources.  This legislation was passed early in session and is one of the few bills that have been signed into law.

The environmental community has seen some early successes and we anticipate there will still be some adversity before the final seasons of the legislative session draws to a close.  Nonetheless, as Anne Bradstreet put it so well “if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome”.  If we stay diligent we will have one of the most prosperous sessions for the environment in recent history.




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