Capitol Update for January 23, 2009

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“I thought all he would be good for would be hauling a delivery wagon.”*
– Dan Messner, the early 1900s

Mr. Messner was the original owner of the renowned harness racing horse Dan Patch.  As a young colt, Dan Patch was personable and trainable, but clearly not striking enough to be considered a great racer.  Fortunately for the little colt, his stable owner took a liking to him and started training him for the track.  Dan Patch rewarded the faith of his trainer by going on to never lose a race in his career in which he set 14 world records.  He was so dominant on the harness racing circuit that soon other owners refused to race their horses against him.  Therefore, for most of his career he only paced in exhibitions against the clock.  He was eventually purchased by Minneapolis businessman Marion Savage, who skillfully took advantage of the publicity around the world champion harness racer to promote his livestock feed business.  Though Savage was originally ridiculed for paying an exorbitant price for the horse, he was soon rewarded when his company saw a fivefold increase in profits the first year after making Dan Patch the star in his company’s feed promotionals.

Savage was not only ahead of his time in effective promotion of animal feeds, but he also was an early innovator in passenger rail for the Twin Cities.  Soon after his prize horse set the world record for the mile in 1:55 at the Minnesota State Fair on September 8, 1906, he was approached by individuals desiring to develop a passenger rail from Minneapolis to the little farming communities of Richfield and Bloomington with a possible vision of taking it on to Northfield, Rochester, and Dubuque.

Even though the little railroad only made it down to Northfield, it was strategically located between several main lines and is still in use today. The Dan Patch commuter cars were considered some of the most pioneering trolleys of their time, powered by a 150-horsepower gas engine that could also pull up to three 75-passenger trailing coaches. A set of storage batteries started the engine and also provided extra juice for acceleration and steep grades.  This was a hundred years before Toyota figured out that a hybrid engine made good sense.  Of course, our transit lovers will also recognize the name Dan Patch as a proposed commuter rail line along the exact same route of the original line that runs from Minneapolis to Northfield.  If ever developed, it will cross the Minnesota River and pass through a town that holds the name of the innovative rail pioneer Marion Savage, the visionary owner of the great Dan Patch.

The beginning of this legislative session seemed more like the slow plod of a horse-drawn delivery wagon.  With the depth of the budget crisis, maybe the analogy of a slow horse-drawn funeral carriage will be more appropriate.  At the beginning of this week, the hallowed halls of our state Capitol were nearly void of activity.  Monday was a day off to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  Tuesday also was slow as attentions were directed to the inauguration of President Obama; truly a milestone for this nation that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., could only dream of as he gave his “I have a dream” speech at the other end of our national mall less than a half-century ago.  Activities at the Legislature came to a halt at 11 a.m. on Tuesday as everyone stopped at the nearest TV monitor and listened in silence to the powerful 30 minute speech.  At the conclusion the speech, one could almost sense a newly-energized atmosphere in the Capitol building.

By Wednesday there seem to be new life breathed into the Capitol.  It was very noticeable that the pace is one even old Dan Patch would have appreciated.  Despite the doom and gloom of the pending budget crisis, it seemed the President’s inauguration was the needed crack of the whip to get the session up to race pace.  Wednesday it definitely felt more like a legislative session with a purpose.

The green team lobbyists have been moving at a pretty good tempo from the beginning of session.  This week, our issue leaders have been making solid progress on our collaborative agenda of safe mining, clean cars, and sensible communities.  All the bills are in the hands of the legislative staff for their final drafts and each of the proposals has chief authors lined up.  Our champions on safe mining will be announced soon.  The clean cars bill has the hard-working duo of Sen. John Marty (DFL – Roseville) and Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) as our chief authors again this year. Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) and Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis) will be taking the reins of the legislation which will encourage building sensible communities.

Adding to the quicker pace were several committee hearings at the end of this week covering many major environmental initiatives.  The low carbon fuel standard legislation received an informational hearing in front of the Senate Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee on Thursday.  The legislation, authored by Sen. Kathy Sheran (DFL-Mankato), would establish a standard to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels.  It would require makers of transportation fuels to reduce the carbon intensity of the fuels for sale in Minnesota by 10% by 2020. Congratulations to Bill Grant, of the Izaak Walton League, and the rest of the low carbon team for a well-organized early hearing.  Though the committee took no formal action on the bill, ChairYvonne Prettner Solon (DFL-Duluth) made it clear that the discussion around the bill would continue.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, chaired by Sen. Satveer Chaudhary (DFL-Fridley), heard a good discussion on Wednesday regarding citizen-led efforts to protect our lakes, rivers and streams. Phil Hunsicker, president of the Crow Wing Lakes and Rivers Association; Dan Siems, aquatic biologist with the Beltrami County Lakes and Rivers Association; Darrell Swanson, board member of the Pine River Watershed Alliance; and Marian Bender, executive director of Minnesota Waters, all provided the committee with extensive information on how citizens are leading efforts to protect Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and streams.

Sparks flew in a joint hearing of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division and House Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Division on Thursday.  The committees heard a presentation regarding the Minnesota Statewide Conservation and Preservation Plan.  One of the plan’s authors, Deborah Swackhamer, an environmental chemist at the University of Minnesota, gave a few of the plan’s highlights.  Swackhamer informed members that corn production has a significant negative impact on water quality because of soil erosion and pesticide runoff.  This information ignited a fiery exchange from Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston), who viewed it as an attack on farmers and the ethanol industry.  The plan clearly indicates that as soon as 2015, Minnesota corn production will not be able to keep pace with the demand for ethanol. The plan supports the proposition that cellulosic ethanol is the best alternative in the near future for the production of ethanol without causing significant harm to the environment.

The first knock down, drag out House floor fight occurred this Thursday over changes made in 2008 to the Green Acres tax benefit program.  Changes during the last hours of the 2008 session removed property tax benefits to land held in conservation by farmers.  This has caused a severe backlash in the conservation and agriculture communities.  Without changes, farmers would be faced with increased property taxes or the untenable proposition of plowing up conservation land.  Rep. Rob Eastland (R-Isanti) brought a motion to suspend the rules to take up HF78 for immediate action on the House floor. This legislation would repeal the 2008 changes.  It was expected that the motion would fail, but it failed only 51-74 with several DFL members not voting.  There have been several promises that this ill-conceived legislation will be fixed this session.  The House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Division, chaired by Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar), will hear several bills on the Green Acres problem at their Tuesday hearing next week.

Finally, this Friday the Legislative Audit Commission, chaired by Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL – South St. Paul), will review the legislative auditor’s report regarding bookkeeping inadequacies at the Department of Natural Resources.  This report cites 17 findings related to inadequate internal controls and noncompliance with legal requirements.  Most disconcerting for the conservation and environmental communities who have fought hard for dedicated funding was the fact that the agency used poor accounting practices to divert dedicated Game and Fish Fund revenues to unrelated purposes.  Let’s hope this exposure brings significant changes in the DNR activities so that the hard fought dedicated resources the voters secured are not raided.

Though the session started off with a slow plod of a horse pulling a funeral wagon, it has picked up.  Unfortunately, this legislative session will be pulling something far more difficult than a harness racing buggy on a flat track.  This will be a long pull up a steep hill to work through the difficult financial crisis we face.  Tuesday will be the first test of the long pull when the governor unveils his two year budget proposal.  The reality of the depths of the cuts needed to be made without any tax increases may take the spring out of the step that was evident among the legislators the latter part of this week.

* Minnesota 150: The People, Places and Things That Shaped Our State.  Kate Roberts, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

One Response to “Capitol Update for January 23, 2009”

  1. John Helland

    I really like the way John Tuma weaves some part of Minnesota history into his commentary on the legislative session each week. It makes more entertaining reading for everyone.
    Yesterday’s resonated for me as my grandfather, originally from Belle Plaine, actually saw Dan Patch race as a youngster.
    Of course, more important is the actual green legislative news and John does a great job on that too. So, not hanging around the Capitol/SOB scene anymore, I appreciate the good reporting John is doing for all interested in environmental issues.


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