So how did the environment fair in the election? Pretty darn well. Here’s my first take on how yesterday’s election will affect Minnesota moving forward in protecting and restoring our environment.
First, to get the national stuff out of the way – the Democrats big wins nationally in U.S. House races should elevate two Minnesota congressmen to chairs of the Agriculture and Transportation committees. This will expand Minnesota’s influence in the development of the next farm bill and influence over where transit dollars get spent. Also, newly elected Kieth Ellison has long been committeed to environmental justice, working with the Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota (EJAM). He should be able to bring to Washington a much needed voice on environmental justice issues.
Coming back to state races, there were a lot of surprises in the election results that will affect the environment. Obviously the change in power with the Minnesota House will bring new committee chairs and committee members. Whether or not this is a step forward or back for the environment will depend largely on who is empowered on the key committees. It’s no secret that the committee makeup in the DFL controlled Senate the past two years really hindered environmental progress, because a majority of key committee members seemed to be less than enthusiastic to protect our environment. If the DFL-led House chooses the same tact, then our work will be harder. Conversely, the House DFL has some strong environmental champions. If they are empowered, Minnesota has a great chance to regain the role of being a national leader in environmental policy.
There are some new folks joining the legislature now that I am excited about. One in particular is Kate Knuth. She won an open seat in New Brighton, which is known for moving back and forth between democrats and republicans. I personally expect big things from Rep. Knuth because of her background. She is currently an “Environmental Education Specialist” with Hamline University’s Center for Global Environmental Education. And I am always happy to see a person with a science background in an elected position, as technical expertise is often lacking in public policy debates.
Policy-wise, Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who is the front runner for the Speaker’s position, included a couple of environmental issues in her campaigning tours for why Minnesotan’s should vote DFL. She promised that if the DFL were empowered the House would pass a Renewable Electricity Standard and a bill to dedicate an expansion of the state’s sales tax to conservation and clean water funding, so now we get to hold them accountable for those promises.
Although it was considered probably, the defeat of Sen. Dallas Sams surprised me some. Sen. Sams was chair of the Environment, Agriculture, and Economic Development Budget Committee. He therefore had great sway over environmental spending in the state and did a pretty decent job advocating for increased spending in this area (though larger forces have kept the level of investment far too low). With his loss and the change of power in the House, this year’s environmental budget will need a whole new slate of advocates.
As implied above, Senate committee makeup will be worth watching in the next two months. The smart folks I know are still wondering about who might become the new Majority Leader in the Senate and I think there will be a bit of a fight to determine who controls the environment budget and policy committees. If Sen. Marty moves over to the crime committee, as some have speculated, that will leave both environment committees open for new leaders. All of which will affect the level of environmental successes for the next two to four years.
Loss of moderate Republicans
This perhaps won’t be my most popular statement in this piece, but I am a little sad to see Rep. Ray Cox and Sen. Carrie Ruud be defeated (though Rep. Cox lost by 57 votes, which should trigger an automatic recount). Admitted, their environmental records are mixed at best, but they both had environmental issues that they helped champion. Without them, it may become harder to rally environmental votes from the minority caucuses. Their successors may both be strong on the environment, but I would hope our community works with both the majority and minority caucuses (because our issues rise above partisanship) and we’ll need some new republican advocates for this.
Governor Pawlenty seemed to do enough in his first term to earn the support of some in the conservation community, like Star Tribune columnist Dennis Anderson. I don’t see compromise as a bad think in the realm of law-making, so optimistically assuming that the Governor will be able to work with the DFL legislature should mean progress for Minnesota’s environment. Who he appoints as the permanent commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will also say a lot about his commitment to a cleaner environment.
It will also be interesting to see what happens to the Conservation Legacy Council, which was appointed last week by the Governor. Their task is to explore funding options for conservation issues and report back to the Governor. I worry a bit that they will just come up with a slate of changes that the Governor has been advocating for over the past few years and he’ll just use it as a means of trying to appear friendly to the blaze-orange crowd without having to work with the DFL on actual solutions. I am an optimist though, so I hope to see the Council work with the DFL on finding common ground.
It appears that Minnesotans have now created a stable source of funding for transit in our state. This is a strong step forward. Is it the end all be all? No. Does it make reaching the end goal easier? Yes. I know people tend to want one solution to a problem, but this should be a good piece of the pie.