John Tuma’s Capitol Update – February 26, 2010
“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways in ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfaction. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.”
-Sigurd F. Olson, The Singing Wilderness, 1956
For those who are familiar with this blog, you know that I’m a huge fan of Sigurd Olson’s writing and his place in Minnesota’s environmental history. His image is one of only a dozen busts that are in the halls of our State Capitol. His bust is appropriately just outside of Room 107 of the State Capitol where the Senate environment committees traditionally meet. If you have never read his work, begin with The Singing Wilderness. It should be essential reading for all Minnesota environmental activists. Be forewarned, you will want to pick up a paddle and head north after you have read this great work.
Unlike my past articles, this quote and story has absolutely nothing to do with this week in the legislative session. I just needed 15 minutes to meditate on the peaceful glide of my Wenonah canoe through the cold clear waters of a northern lake and the rhythmic swooshing of the paddle meeting the water as my eyes scan the distant shore for the next portage. The Green Team lobbyists have been extremely busy this last week as the Legislature rushes headlong into this very contentious session. Taking 15 minutes to dream of a summer canoe trip helps me keep my sanity.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the hustle and bustle this week around the Minnesota Environmental Partnership priorities for this session:
Complete Streets: Making Roads Safer for All Minnesotans. The House of Representatives has moved first on this legislation which improves road planning in ways to reduce our dependency on costly and dirty energy sources. HF2801, authored by Rep. Mike Obermueller (DFL-Eagan), had its second hearing in the Transportation Finance and Policy Division on Thursday afternoon. There were objections raised by county engineers and concerns raised in earlier committees about its fiscal impact. Rep. Obermueller did a masterful job of modifying the bill to meet all objections and improve the content of the bill for the environmental advocates.
Now the bill has to start its movement through the Senate, which will likely happen soon. The next stop in the House will be the full Finance Committee where we expect little opposition. Due to the hard work of the very broad coalition, it looks like this legislation is well set up to succeed this session.
Safe Mines: Protecting Our Water from Toxic Mining Pollution. The battle to protect the lakes, rivers and streams so precious to Sigurd Olson and so many others who value the beauty of our northern woods has been challenging. With a down economy, anyone offering just a glimmer of an outside chance of a job somewhere in the future seems to be given an extraordinary benefit of the doubt at the Legislature. The recent endorsements by newly elected U.S. Senator Al Franken and the Star Tribune of the first sulfide mining project known as PolyMet has clouded our true objective at the Minnesota Legislature. Fortunately, for the first time this session, a rational voice has finally spoken up in the U.S. EPA. They indicated that the Minnesota DNR did not do a sufficient environmental review on the PolyMet proposal to construct a sulfide mine near the old LTV mining complex because they failed to identify the water treatment and financial assurance necessary for the mine’s closure. These elements are central to the bill being supported by MEP that is authored by Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) and Sen. Jim Carlson (DFL -Eagan) HF2560/SF2349. We are still working to secure hearings on the bill this session and we’re hoping they can happen in a couple weeks.
Defending Existing Environmental Protections. There have been several efforts in this legislative session to undo some of our key legal protections to the environment. Most disconcerting of these efforts has been the movement by the Chamber of Commerce to repeal the state’s moratorium on the construction of costly new nuclear reactors. The environmental community has been busy this week meeting with legislators and explaining why it is a misplaced priority to repeal the moratorium on the construction of these facilities in Minnesota. Nonetheless, it appears that some legislative leaders want this to move forward based on the Senate’s strong vote for repeal of the moratorium last session. A bill (SF355) repealing the moratorium authored by Sen. Amy Koch (R- Buffalo) will be heard in the Senate Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee next Tuesday and Thursday. The committee staff is expecting a large turnout and the environment protection team is working hard to show the committee members why there’s no need at this stage to repeal the moratorium. These will be some of the most significant environmental hearings of this session and well worth the effort to attend.
In addition to the repeal of the nuclear reactor moratorium, we are facing efforts to weaken environmental review and permitting, to repeal the prohibition on importing power from new coal plants built outside the state, and possible changes to feedlot regulations. There is no doubt we will remain busy fending off these shortsighted efforts this session.
Protecting Environmental and Conservation Funding. Late Sunday night the House and Senate conference committee reached an agreement on a billion dollar bonding bill. Almost one quarter of the bonding bill was for environment and conservation programs. Unfortunately, before the ink could even dry on the conference committee report, the Governor was already threatening a veto. The Legislature held back the final approval of the conference committee report in hopes of entering into negotiations with the Governor. Those negotiations started in earnest in the latter part of this week after the Governor returned from his travels on his not yet declared campaign for president. Reports from legislative leaders involved in negotiations are that the initial meetings with the Governor have been productive. They have set an informal goal of trying to wrap the bill up by Wednesday of next week. The total amount of the bill would likely have to decrease to meet some of the Governor’s objections.
The Governor’s budget has been scrutinized by the finance committees responsible for environmental programming in both the House and Senate this week. The Governor strove to have 3% cuts in operation budgets with 6% cuts in grant programs across all state agencies except for public safety, education and veteran services. It appears that our agencies received cuts which are proportional to other agencies, but they were accomplished by shifting dollars from areas such as the Environment Fund and the Game and Fish Fund. These funds were created using revenue from permit fees and license fees, and these fees were meant to be specifically dedicated to activities directly related to the items for which the fees were levied. For example, fishing license fees should go towards fishing programs and improved fishing habitat, not to balance the state’s budget. MEP will provide testimony regarding the budget in Tuesday hearings next week.
Also setting the tone for the rest the session will be the February budget forecast that comes out March 2. Yes, it is odd to call it the “February” forecast when it comes out in March, but that’s the legislative process for you. This is the final budget forecast that the Legislature uses to balance the state’s budget. The preliminary forecast which came out in November (the October forecast) showed a $1.2 billion deficit that the Constitution requires the Legislature and the Governor to balance. Word is that the budget forecast may improve slightly. Sen. Ellen Anderson, chair of the Senate Environment Finance Committee, indicated that if the budget forecast remains the same she has been told that her Senate target for cuts is $19 million, which is actually $3 million more than the cuts proposed by the Governor. Hopefully the February forecast will improve and have a positive effect on the legislative budget targets for the environment finance committees.
This all means there will be another busy week, particularly as the Legislature nears its first committee deadline on Friday, March 12. So forgive me if I fade away for a few minutes, while waiting for a bill to come up in committee, to think of vermilion sunsets fading into tree-lined hills as a campfire crackles. Having dreams of our Great Outdoors keeps us on the Green team sharp for the next fight with the forces of pollution and environmental exploitation.