The Minnesota Legislature adjourned ahead of its constitutional deadline, and now as happened last year, everyone needs to sort out what just happened. A Supplemental Appropriations Bill was passed to the Governor, including some wins for the environment. However, neither a bonding bill nor a transportation package passed. There are rumors flying that we may go into special session yet again this year to address bonding and transportation, among other issues.
This session, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership focused on these five collaborative priorities of the environmental and conservation community:
- Restore the MPCA Citizens Board
- Funding for the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative
- Completing the Minnesota Perennial Biofuels Program (Working Lands Watershed Restoration)
- Comprehensive, long term transportation funding
- Broadband for All
For a mid-session look at MEP’s legislative initiatives this session, see this blog post.
Overall, this session was a mixed bag for the environment. We had some wins, some losses, and some head-scratchers this year.
The Supplemental Appropriations Bill contained some good provisions for our Great Outdoors, including funding for some of our key issues. The supplemental appropriations bill provides mid-course adjustments to the state’s two year budget. Highlights include:
$1 million allocated for the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative
This initiative is a critical strategy for protecting our water quality. The Forever Green Initiative is working to develop perennial and cover crops that will protect our soil and prevent runoff of nutrients and pesticides during the most pollution vulnerable times of year: spring and fall.
This program is not only a win for water quality, but also for farmers. Researchers are working on exciting new ways to bring these crops to market. The Forever Green Initiative not only improves water quality, but it could mean more profitable options for farmers in the future.
Funding for Development of the Working Lands Watershed Restoration Program
This program provides incentives to landowners to grow water-friendly perennial crops for use by livestock and in advanced ethanol production facilities in areas targeted for protection by water clean-up plans. Much like the Forever Green crops, the clean crops covered by this program will help create new markets for farmers, but also produce other benefits by protecting our water and creating more habitat for diverse wildlife.
$35 million funded for Border-to-Border Broadband Initiative
Expanding broadband will connect communities across Minnesota, and encourages strong and diverse economic development. This is particularly critical in Greater Minnesota, where broadband can open new paths to needed employment, education opportunities and diverse economic growth.
While $35 million is a good start toward updating the information infrastructure, it is not enough. More needs to be done to ramp up this important gateway to economic viability.
No bonding bill passed this session
A bonding bill is, like the supplemental appropriations bill, about financing public projects. In this case, the funding used comes from state-issued bonds. You can think of it as a loan that the state gets from those citizens that purchase bonds, and the government pays the citizens back over time with interest.
There are many reasons why the failure to pass a bonding bill is a failure for Minnesota. Here are the consequences for Minnesota’s environment:
- Lack of funding to update water infrastructure and projects, especially in rural areas;
- No funding to leverage federal funds for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to set aside pollution vulnerable farm land to protect our water; and
- No funding to match federal dollars to continue the clean up the St. Louis River – one of the most endangered rivers in the nation.
No transportation package passed
All of the state political leaders had made this one of their top priorities. We and others called for passage of a comprehensive transportation package that included all modes of transportation. However, the House and Senate couldn’t agree on what this should look like. The Senate transportation proposal was comprehensive and included funding for multiple modes of transportation, including transit, bike and pedestrians. But agreement proved elusive and they were unable to reach a compromise with the House. The clock ran out on another session with no comprehensive transportation package.
- No new funds to fix crumbling roads and bridges;
- No expansion of transit systems, either in the Metro area or Greater Minnesota; and
- No new funds for bike and pedestrian.
If legislators were able to reach a comprehensive agreement on transportation, the Governor could call a special session. The modest transportation provisions that were included in the failed end-of-session Bonding bill fell far short of what is needed to move our state forward.
MPCA Citizens’ Board was not reinstated.
Repealed in the dead of the night in 2015, the bill to reinstate the Citizens’ Board cleared two Senate Committees, but a similar bill in the House was not given a hearing.
Compared to the notorious 2015 session, there were fewer attempts to undermine Minnesota’s environmental policy foundation. But the notable exception to this is the passage of the US Steel Keetac sulfate loophole bill.
The Keetac loophole is in direct violation of the Clean Water Act and Environmental Protection Agency regulations that require states to enforce water quality standards. This new law exempts the US Steel Keetac plant from meeting limits in its wastewater discharge permits that are based on Minnesota’s existing wild rice sulfate standard. This legislation chips away at this bedrock of Minnesota’s – and America’s – environmental policy, and puts the water quality of our streams and lakes at risk.
Overall, the session was a mixed bag for the environment. We had some important successes, but the failure to pass a bonding bill or a transportation package stalled critical progress. We may be heading for a special session to get this important business done. But that will be up to Governor Dayton and the willingness of legislators to compromise now, when they have been unable to do so for months and years on some of these key issues.