Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Four weeks from now, the nation will vote in the highly consequential 2022 general elections. MEP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, meaning that we do not take sides in elections or support candidates for office. But we do strongly believe in the democratic process and in ensuring that voters are well-informed about how that process affects our environmental issues.
We know that many of our subscribers are door-knocking, phone-banking, and otherwise asking friends and neighbors to make their voices heard, so we’ve put together this primer on how each elected position has an impact on our efforts to fight climate change and secure environmental justice for all. Make no mistake: even the seemingly smallest local positions can have a big influence on the lands, water and air that give us life.
Both the Minnesota Senate and the House of Representatives are up for election this year, running in newly drawn districts thanks to the 2020 census and redistricting process. In both chambers, the majority party holds power by a slim majority, meaning that control could be decided by thin margins of votes.
MEP focuses the bulk of our advocacy efforts on the Legislature because of its broad influence on the state’s environmental policies and investments. 2023 will be a “budget” year, when the Legislature and the Governor have to decide how to prioritize funding for state agencies and efforts for the next two years. They’ll also have the opportunity to propose new policies that could better safeguard Minnesotans’ health and natural resources, or roll back longstanding protections. Many of our most groundbreaking policies, like the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007, have come out of the Legislature.
For the past few years, the divided Legislature has made little progress in moving our state’s environmental protections forward. It also hasn’t moved us far backward, but with a deepening array of interconnected crises and inequities in our climate, water, and communities, a lack of progress is not acceptable.
As we wrote in our Legislative wrap-up, there were some bright spots in 2022, especially on regenerative agriculture and constitutionally dedicatedt funds for water and outdoors. MEP also supported and celebrated the Legislature’s passage of more than $300 million in clean water infrastructure bonds in 2020. But key policy advances – and lots of spending on climate action – didn’t make it across the finish line. For example, the “cumulative impacts” bill would have created new protections for environmental justice communities – areas home to people of color and low-income families that tend to suffer a disproportionate burden of adverse human health and environmental effects, such as pollution. Like many good ideas, it wasn’t passed into law.
In addition to carrying the hopes and fears of Minnesotans concerned about the environment in legislation, the Minnesota Senate also has the power to remove agency leaders from office. The Senate has controversially used that power to remove or force resignations from several agency leaders in the past few years, notably Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley for the department’s opposition to Line 3 and Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop due to disagreements on Clean Cars rulemaking.
U.S. House of Representatives
Minnesota’s eight U.S. Representatives are up for election this year, and the outcome of these elections will help determine how and whether the nation meets the needs of the moment to help address climate change. Recent bills, like the Infrastructure and Jobs bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, have had a major, largely positive impact on our climate and have provided resources to invest in environmental justice communities. Pressure from House of Representatives members also helped block the “side deal” permitting legislation that would have reduced the community voice on energy infrastructure projects, including fossil fuel pipelines.
The next House will continue to have big national impacts and could help determine the future of key environmental issues in Minnesota including policies to promote regenerative agriculture and transit expansions, safeguards for vulnerable watersheds like the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior, and protection of our water from harmful PFAS chemicals.
Minnesota’s Governor is responsible for appointing Commissioners to state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources, Pollution Control Agency, and Department of Agriculture. The qualifications and views of the individuals appointed can have a big impact on how these agencies act on contentious issues before the legislature and in administrative actions like rulemaking. MEP and our partners often ask these agencies to support legislation or adopt rules that will protect Minnesotans from hazards like lead, mercury, and other pollutants.
The Governor also fills vacancies on the state Supreme Court, which often has the last word on environmental cases. And, among many other significant jobs to fill, the Governor appoints new members of the Public Utilities Commission, the body that often decides whether to allow construction of projects like new energy plants or fossil fuel pipelines, as it did with controversial Line 3 project.
While the Legislature is an independent branch of government, the Governor’s priorities and positions carry significant weight at the negotiating table when House and Senate leaders hash out differences in their policy and budget bills.
State Attorney General
Minnesota’s Attorney General is often described as the “people’s lawyer” due to the job’s key role in consumer and environmental protection. Among other responsibilities, the Attorney General’s office is often the best-equipped public entity to take on corporations that put Minnesotans at risk. The 2018 3M settlement is a major example: a lawsuit launched by the Attorney General’s office secured $850 million – the largest environmental settlement in Minnesota history – for clean drinking water after 3M polluted the water of the East Metro with PFAS chemicals for decades.
While the State Auditor position is primarily a financial watchdog for the state’s many levels and units of government, the Auditor also serves on the State Board of Investments, helping to determine where to invest Minnesota’s state pension and other funds. In that role, the Auditor helps to determine whether Minnesota funds go to smart long-term investments or short-term, harmful booms like coal and oil – see MinnPost’s in-depth coverage of this issue.
Secretary of State
Minnesota’s Secretary of State doesn’t have much direct impact on the environment, but does carry the vital responsibility of ensuring that Minnesota’s elections are conducted fairly and openly. In too many places in our nation, voting rights are under threat from voter roll purges and restrictions, especially in communities of color. A democracy where all Minnesotans can make their voices heard is vital to ensuring that our common values are protected, so it’s critically important that the Secretary of State protect our access to the ballot box.
County and Municipal Races
County and city leaders play an enormous role in local land use and transportation decisions. Aided by professional staff, they oversee parks, road construction, zoning decisions, water systems, and numerous other moving parts in their jurisdiction.
Most of Minnesota’s counties, including the five most populous – Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Anoka, and Washington – are electing county commissioners and other county offices in November. These commissioners may determine, for example, whether to build new bike or pedestrian infrastructure, how to manage stormwater, or where to build new housing or amenities. They can also chart a course for climate action, as Hennepin County did with its plan in 2021.
Many Minnesotans are also electing local Water and Soil Supervisors, who are responsible for overseeing these resources on private land in their district. They manage the monitoring of water and soil, take actions to keep it clean, and secure funding to invest in resources in their district.
Use your voice
We urge Minnesotans to research candidates and races beyond those listed here – other elections include school boards, county attorneys and sheriffs, and judicial seats that vary by area, and to confirm their registration and make a plan to vote using the Secretary of State’s website. Given the overlapping challenges we face, none of us can afford to sit these elections out.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.