Legislature hits the ground running

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

We’re now three weeks into the 2023 Minnesota Legislative Session, and MEP and our allies are pleased to report that bills that would make Minnesota a healthier, greener place to live have a clear path forward with plenty of strong support.

As we have for more than two decades, MEP has been working with Legislators, developing community positions and sending letters, and closely tracking House and Senate committees. Two of our top priorities are on track to success, passing out of their respective committees over the past couple of weeks.

Lead in the water

First, there’s HF 24, a bill to fund a statewide program to remove and replace every remaining drinking water service line made of lead in the state. MEP has made this issue a top priority for several sessions, and we organized lead testing in Duluth homes to help investigate and bring attention to the problem.

More than 100,000 Minnesota homes have pipes made of lead delivering water into their homes. That’s 100,000 households potentially exposed to lead in their drinking water, with children especially at risk. It disproportionately impacts Black, brown, and Indigenous Minnesotans, children, people with disabilities, and people with low incomes. No amount of lead exposure is safe, and drinking contaminated water can lead to developmental problems and other health issues that last a lifetime. While the risk can be mitigated with filtration and adjustments in water pH, the only surefire way to protect families is to replace the service lines with copper.

HF 24, authored by Rep. Sydney Jordan, would identify and replace these lines over the next ten years at no cost to residents, who might otherwise have to pay thousands of dollars to secure safe water. The bill, which has bipartisan support, passed out of the House Economic Development Committee earlier this week, and companion legislation is moving in the Senate. At this stage, we are optimistic that this commonsense bill – a huge investment in public health and safety for our state – may finally pass this session.

Carbon-free energy

Second, the Minnesota House has passed a bill requiring Minnesota utilities to generate 100% of our state’s electricity from carbon-free sources by 2040, another key MEP priority. If it passes both houses and Governor Walz signs it into law, policy would be a monumental step forward for Minnesota’s climate action efforts.

100% carbon-free energy has been proposed before and failed, but has strong support this year. That’s not just because of the unified legislature – the beneficial economics of this policy become clearer every day. Minnesotans are already benefiting from the rapid growth in clean electricity as wind turbines and solar panels are brought online across our state, coexisting with our farms and communities without generating air pollution. The increasing affordability, efficiency, and reliability of these clean power sources make scaling them up easier than ever. Meanwhile, we’re facing rising climate costs – including the visible effects on our roads from heightened precipitation – that make dragging our feet on climate leadership obviously expensive to most Minnesotans.

That said, MEP does have concerns about the legislation’s effect on large hydroelectric dams, which the legislation currently adds as a ‘renewable’ eligible energy technology. Large hydropower – such as that produced by Manitoba Hydro and sold by Minnesota Power to its customers – has displaced Indigenous communities in Canada with devastating impacts. Minnesota will have to carefully consider how to center Indigenous concerns on this issue as we move forward.

The House version of the bill, HF 7, passed 70-60 after a long debate on Thursday night. Its Senate companion, SF 4, was passed by the Senate Energy, Utilities, Environment, and Climate Committee earlier this week.. We expect this bill will likely be considered on the floor of the Senate next week. (You can use our action system to contact your Senator in support of this bill.)

The Governor’s budget

Finally, Governor Tim Walz has now released his proposed budget. The second of four budget packages focus on economic development, support for workers, and climate action. The latter section includes key MEP priorities on climate, including forest and prairie restoration, weatherization standards and investments for buildings, solar panels on Minnesota schools, and local food programs. We will be closely monitoring the section of this package related to promotion of ethanol, however, as evidence shows that traditional ethanol may harm the climate more than it helps.

The Governor’s January 24 announcement of the MPCA budget also includes a key MEP priority: the Cumulative Impacts bill. Governor Walz and Lt. Governor Flanagan have made important investments to address inequities in pollution exposure rooted in the understanding that limiting cumulative impacts to pollution is crucial to protecting the health of all Minnesotans, especially the most vulnerable. This funding would allow MPCA to implement a new law and corresponding rulemaking to consider cumulative impacts in the agency’s permitting decisions.

The Legislature isn’t obligated to pass the Governor’s budget, of course. But with unified control, a massive state surplus, and legislative commitments to climate action, we’re confident that many of these investments will be signed into law. We look forward to seeing progress on other priorities soon, including protections against PFAS and policies that safeguard pollinator habitat.

Last session, apart from wins on regenerative agriculture and Minnesota’s legacy funds, not much got done at the Capitol. It’s safe to say: this session is different. MEP will continue working hard at the Capitol with our allies, and we won’t celebrate until our priorities become law, but we’re excited by the progress so close at hand. Minnesotans have given us so many good ideas to help our people and planet, and for the next few months, we’re going to get them done.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

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