Commission recommends Environmental Trust Fund projects for 2021

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, Minnesota’s Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota resources (LCCMR) came to an agreement on recommending projects to be funded in 2021 by the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF.) This list of $70 million worth of science, restoration, and conservation projects will be submitted to the Legislature for approval early next year.

This jargon-heavy news bodes well for Minnesota’s environment. The Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund is one of the state’s most valuable sources of support for projects that make Minnesota’s environment cleaner, our communities healthier, and our scientific knowledge more advanced. Created by voters in a constitutional amendment referendum, it has been working effectively for the better part of three decades. The 2021 recommendations include funds for parkland acquisition and improvement, research into storage of renewable energy, and critical, time-sensitive protections against invasive species

Previously, the LCCMR has been logjammed over the inclusion of wastewater infrastructure in the recommendations. MEP and our allies have argued that funding a basic government service like wastewater infrastructure upgrades from the ENRTF is unconstitutional and would lead the trust fund to be drained dry. After legislation to do so anyway was passed in 2018, we sued to block the sale of the bonds. Fortunately, the Legislature corrected the problem in 2019, but the controversy has lingered since then.

A stark contrast with 2020

The LCCMR did not make a final recommendation for projects for the 2020 Legislative Session, though it did create a tentative list. Bills have been introduced to fund the projects during the regular legislative session, as well as in the special sessions, this year, but nothing has passed. 

Initially, the ENRTF programs understandably took a backseat to COVID relief. But the Senate then refused entirely to consider an LCCMR funding bill, citing the looming budget deficit. After three subsequent special sessions, the Legislature has not funded any projects from the ENRTF this  year.

This failure to fund programs is foolhardy from an economic standpoint. The Trust Fund was developed with proceeds from the state lottery and investment revenue. It supports numerous jobs in science, engineering, and natural resources management. At a time when unemployment is at high levels, it makes no sense to interrupt critical research and improvement programs that rely on ENRTF money. With an accelerating climate crisis, increasingly polluted water, and a desperate need to protect our biosphere, this is no time to leave tools unused in the toolbox.

The failure to pass a bill is also a betrayal of Minnesota voters. The original 1988 amendment to create the state lottery and the ENRTF passed with over three-quarters of voters in favor. We as Minnesotans created the Trust Fund to improve our landscape, our economy, and our well-being. We didn’t include a clause saying, “Unless the Legislature decides it’s not worth passing a bill.”

It’s unclear whether the Legislature will return for another special session this year, or if they’ll agree on much if they do. But if they do come together, passing a Trust Fund bill would be an easy, bipartisan win for jobs, wildlife, and a more sustainable future.

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