By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Last week, we offered a brief preview of the Legislature’s work in the 2020 session, which began on Tuesday. One of the crucial aspects of this session is its traditional status as a bonding year. Bonding allows the state to borrow money to finance capital projects – mostly including new infrastructure construction, upgrades, and improvements to Minnesota landscapes – by selling general-obligation bonds. The debt and interest on the bonds is paid off over a number of future years.
Because Minnesota has an AAA credit rating and interest rates are generally low, financing these projects is highly affordable, and provide a great opportunity to invest in projects that make our state more livable and more sustainable – that is, if our state leaders can agree on a bonding package.
In 2018, Governor Mark Dayton reluctantly signed a bonding bill that included no funding for public transit and raided the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund for unconstitutional projects. Two years prior, the House and Senate were unable to come to an agreement on a bonding package, but managed to pass one that was signed at the end of the 2017 session.
There’s ample reason to think that a bonding bill will pass this year, though the final dollar amount is in dispute: Governor Walz has called for $2 billion in new investments, while Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has signaled that his caucus would prefer less than $1 billion.
What does this mean for climate action?
Bonding gives our state a chance to take immediate, powerful action to combat our two largest sources of greenhouse emissions: transportation and land use/agriculture, as well as smaller but significant sources like buildings and solid waste.
To clean up transportation, we know that we need to reduce overall vehicle miles traveled and electrify the miles that remain. Along those lines, the state should:
- Invest in paths and safety upgrades that promote safe biking and walking across the state.
- Provide grants to transit providers in Greater Minnesota to maintain facilities, improve or expand transit service.
- Conduct design and construction on new busway routes and passenger rail.
- Help local governments and state agencies install fast-charging infrastructure for electric vehicles on government properties.
Agriculture and land use provide an opportunity not to only reduce emissions, but also to absorb them. The state should:
- Boost funding for the Conservation Reserve Easement Program, which supports farmers in planting conservation acres to provide wildlife habitat, which helps to absorb carbon.
- Fund the acquisition and improvement of public lands, including reforestation.
- Fund the Reinvest in Minnesota program, which pays farmers and landowners to establish permanent perennial land cover. This program has the twin goals of helping farmers who face financial hardship in the midst of the farm crisis and promoting soil health and carbon sequestration.
- Funding research at the University of Minnesota at Morris into how rotational grazing can help turn animal agriculture into a carbon sink, rather than a climate stressor.
And as we wrote in January, MEP strongly supports efforts to make our communities’ water infrastructure more effective and more climate-resilient to safeguard Minnesotans’ health.
There are many other good bonding projects being put forth for the environment this session, but MEP seeks to emphasize to lawmakers that climate action can’t be an afterthought when it comes to these bonding dollars: it should be at the center.
Good bonding should be complemented with good policy
There is energy this session in both houses of the Capitol to accelerate the transition to clean electricity. The Senate has already unveiled a Clean Energy First bill that contains elements of a House bill that failed last session. While Clean Energy First is an important policy tool, other provisions in the bill prevent it from representing real climate progress, as MEP and our partners said in a Star Tribune op-ed yesterday. We eagerly await the release of stronger climate legislation during this session, and we’ll be ready to offer more analysis and testimony to help shape bills for the better.
The complicated process of crafting a bonding bill can make it somewhat inaccessible and opaque to Minnesotans outside the Capitol, but the lawmakers who take on the task are usually receptive to feedback from constituents. We strongly recommend that Minnesotans talk their to lawmakers about prioritizing the climate crisis this session, and making sure we get a bonding bill that moves us forward.