The Senate DFL likes to talk about the need to clean up our lakes and rivers. We are, after all, the land of 10,000 lakes and photos of algae filled lakes and stories of sick children don’t really bring in the tourist dollars. But I’m beginning to feel more and more that the Senate DFL caucus might just be all talk.
A little background if you like
As you may know, environmental and conservation advocates have been working with unusual allies such as the MN Chamber of Commerce, MN Farm Bureau, MN Farmers Union, the League of Minnesota Cities and others for four years to secure adequate funding to clean up and protect our lakes, rivers and streams. These various voices are all brought together because “clean water is vital to the growth of our communities, essential for business and agriculture to create jobs, and the backbone of our state’s natural heritage.”
Four years ago, when a fewer number of polluted lakes, rivers, and streams had been identified, these groups worked with the Pollution Control Agency to identify (PDF) just what it would take to clean up our water. They identified a need of $230 million per year in order to assess and clean up Minnesota’s water. In that $230 million, they identified the need for $80 to $100 million to come from state funding. This money could be used to leverage federal farm program moneys, local matching dollars, and other revenue sources. Two years ago, these diverse interests started the legislative session with a proposal to raise $80 million in revenues through the use of a $36/household annual fee – not an ideal revenue source of course, but one that could be accepted by most of the interests involved. It was quickly ignored by the legislature, which failed to invest any money that year.
Last year, the legislature designated $15 million in one-time surplus revenues and $10 million in bonding to get Clean Water Legacy started. Far short of $100 million, yes, but understandable given that many programs need to ramp up rather than run full speed from a dead stop.
Senate DFL’s Current Offers
This year, the need is greater than ever for funding to clean up our lakes and rivers. We’ve been given the impression quite a few times that legislative leadership understood this need and that they’d make Clean Water Legacy a funding priority. I wish I could write that their actions match their words, but indications seem to be that they are undercutting it more and more.
There are both short term funding (July ’07-June ’08) and long term funding (July ’08 on) under discussion. The Senate DFL has chosen not to include Clean Water Legacy funding in any future budget estimate beyond July of 2008 (which begins Fiscal Year ’09). They instead are relying on the use of “one-time” money for the short term and kind of including it in their discussions for the “dedicated funding” bills for the long term. I say “kind of” because their latest offer fails to spell out how much money it would receive.
So, here are some details. Short term, the Senate DFL hasn’t figured out (or at least announced) if all of the “one-time” spending will be in one stand alone bill or not, so it’s been a little hard to track. As I understand it, the Senate Environment Finance was given a certain amount to spend, so they passed the recommendation for $35 million a year for Clean Water Legacy. Not full funding by far, but a step up from last year’s $25. The Governor, as you may recall, recommended only $20 million per year – a step in the wrong direction altogether. Now we hear though that the Senate DFL is actually reducing the amount of money that can be spent on Clean Water Legacy to $25 million a year (this number has not been fully confirmed yet, but that’s the indication at this time). This in no way matches their rhetoric of clean water being important to them.
Long term funding seems to be just as murky as the Mississippi. Their original dedicated funding offer would have asked voters to increase the state sales tax by 3/8 percent, providing a third of that to habitat and conservation spending (approximately $90 million if I remember the math correctly), about $60 million for Clean Water Legacy, and equal amounts for Parks & Trails and Arts programs. Still not fully funding Legacy, but at least workable – and there were reasons to believe that it would get better. Poll after poll says that water is the highest priority for voters on the dedicated funding proposals and we had heard that Senate leadership understood this.
You’d think we’d be okay in their adjustment to the bill then, wouldn’t you? If so, you’d be wrong. Their proposal released over the weekend (amending SF 6 in the Finance Committee) kept habitat funding the same, increased funding for the arts, and lumped Parks & Trails funding in with Clean Water Legacy funding (at a lower total level, spread out over more categories), without any guarantee of a certain amount of money being provided to either area. My question is, if clean water is the vote driver on this bill, why isn’t Clean Water Legacy fully funded?
I don’t get it. Their actions disappoint me more and more each week right now. Maybe there is some larger strategy involved that has not been revealed. Maybe we’re just getting hosed again. Either way, I’d prefer the Senate DFL to quit the political games and say how much money they are willing to spend on cleaning up our lakes and rivers.
What about the House?
The House Environment Finance committee is scheduled to unveil their budget bill in the morning and is rumored to be including their one-time spending in with their normal budget.
House leadership released their version of the dedicated funding bill last week with HF 2285. They also propose a 3/8th increase, with 25% for habitat, 25% for Clean Water Legacy, 15% for Parks & Trails, 15% for a “sustainable drinking water fund” and 10% for Arts. I believe this would equate to around $70 million for Clean Water Legacy. I am not sure what their plan from here is, with regards to hearing schedules, sticking with this ratio, etc. so I’ll wait and see.