Capitol Update for May 4, 2007

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Money is all the talk of the capitol this week.  John Tuma has this report on spending for the environment:

Life is as tedious as a twice told tale vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.
William Shakespeare, “King John”, Act 3 Scene 4

The Conference Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Energy Omnibus Bill (SF2096) completed its work Wednesday at 12 noon of this week.  The conference committee received its budget target from the leadership Saturday afternoon.  The committee proceeded to work late into the evenings on Monday and Tuesday before they were able to reach final agreement Wednesday morning.  A great deal happens in these grueling long sessions where self-imposed deadlines force weary politicians, legislative staff, and lobbyists to the breaking point with the hope all things will fall together.

The life of a conference committee on an omnibus bill can be quite tedious, vexing, and will often create very drowsy participants.  For the untrained observer, these events looks like a very chaotic mix of union negotiations, reality TV, endurance testing, and a dysfunctional nonprofit board meeting, and in this respect, the untrained observer would be correct.  It is a tedious process; however, it is better than the alternative, such as other governments that throw bombs at each other when the opposing interests don’t get along.  Instead, we just bore each other to death.

If you are an individual who finds numbers tedious and vexing, stop reading now.  The results of conference committees are a lot of numbers, but they do have meaning.  The overall target for the Environment, Natural Resources and Energy budget was somewhat deceiving.  The following is the “net” environment and energy target (all numbers are in the millions).

Governor   $422.43
House   $431.44
Senate   $411.24
Conference target    $441.01 

Based on those numbers, it would appear that the environment was given $10 million more to spend than any of the previous targets.  Unfortunately, you have to take into account changes in the revenue increases.  The legislative leadership has agreed to the Governor’s lower fee increases.  That means there was actually less money to spend on new programs because lower fee increases result in less available dollars than the larger proposed fee increases which were in the legislative bills.

A more accurate number to determine what the commitment to programming from the general fund will be is the available dollars the committee had to spend.  This would be base funding (money carried over from last session) + new ongoing base funding + one-time spending.  This is a breakdown of the available dollars proposed by the Governor and each of the committees compared to the conference target:

Governor  $426.98
House   $449.01
Senate   $430.32
Conference target  $445.56

Therefore, the target had slightly less available spending than the original House proposal, but significantly better than the Governor’s original budget. 

It is difficult to say what the percentage increase would be for the overall budget because there is $74.8 million of one-time spending within that target and the environment area has a lot of separate special accounts that will be adjusted.  We will be closely analyzing the results of the budget for some time.  Nonetheless, we can look at the general fund commitment to the environment.  The funding proposal amounts to about a 7% increase in the base funding coming from the general fund over the full biennium.  This more preferred base funding increase is significantly smaller than proposed by the Governor over the next two years, but better than the last three budgets where ongoing base funding for the environment actually declined.

Most of that one-time money in this budget was spent on the Clean Water Legacy.  Not that we don’t appreciate the additional dollars spent on investments in cleaning up our lakes and rivers, but one-time money does not create a long-term planning atmosphere which is essential for cleaning up our dirty water.  Simply put, one-time money does not make a legacy.

The following were the biennial Clean Water Legacy investments by agency:

PCA  $35.705
DNR  $4.5
BWSR $14.166
Ag  $4.0
Total  $58.371

This amounts to a little more than $29 million annually, which is only a small increase over the $25 million a year that these agencies received in Clean Water Legacy startup money last session.  Therefore, it is essential that the Legislature figure out a dedicated funding option that will provide greater assurance of a long-term $100 million annual investment.  Failure to do so will only leave a legacy of polluted lakes and rivers for future generations.

A couple of good pieces of news from the conference committee is that the Clean Water Legacy funding included a sufficient amount of dollars to test 10% of our lakes annually over the next two years, which signals the legislators’ desire to complete all our lakes in the next 10 years. 

It was also a very good sign that this bill is getting wrapped up quickly.  It should be the second major omnibus bill to be approved by the full Legislature.  It is on the agenda this Friday (today) for completion.  Therefore, it may already be done when you are reading this article.  We have always lost dollars when the environment bill is held hostage to the very end until there is a “global agreement”.  The large budget interests of health and human services, education, and transportation usually find ways to steal dollars out of the environment’s little pot of money.  As a result, we have seen real declines in our budgets over the last decade.  There is no guarantee that someone may not try to steal dollars even after the bill is wrapped up, but this is extremely difficult. 

Therefore, the sooner this bill is on the Governor’s desk the better.  The bill should be presented to the Governor early next week if all things go smoothly.  Conversations with the Governor’s staff indicate that this bill will likely be signed without objection.  It is a good thing that we can now move on to other more challenging issues like global warming, which we are confident will not be as tedious as a twice told tale.  We are expecting major votes next week in the House of Representatives on global warming, so stay tuned for some breaking news.

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