By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
On Tuesday, we received troubling news about Minnesota’s work to restore and protect our natural spaces. State Representative Rick Hansen, chair of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division, posted a letter from his Senate counterpart, Bill Ingebrigtsen, in which Senator Ingebrigtsen said that the Senate does not intend to pass a bill spending funds from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF) this year.
Senator Ingebrigtsen said that because the state would face a budget deficit next year, and because the LCCMR (the panel that recommends which projects to fund) did not come to a final agreement on the full package this year, ENRTF money should not be spent in 2020.
Essentially, this letter indicates that the Senate intends to leave money on the table during a recession, despite no need to do so, and leaving environmental programs out in the cold without reason. There is no pressing fiscal reason for refusing to pass a bill, and it will actively hurt workers who rely on the projects the ENRTF supports.
How the ENRTF helps the state
The ENRTF was created by voters via a constitutional amendment in 1988, and is funded by proceeds from the Minnesota Lottery and investment income. It doesn’t draw on taxpayer funds, and has been sustainable throughout its 30-year history. It provides money to environmental and conservation projects that improve natural resources and habitat, support research into sustainability, and protect Minnesota’s outdoor recreation economy. In doing so, it supports numerous jobs throughout the state and helps us fight climate change, invasive species, and pollution.
The ENRTF is not meant to plug budget holes or fund basic infrastructure projects. A bill passed in 2018 did just that in defiance of the intent of the constitutional amendment, and MEP and our allies sued the state to prevent it. This litigation effectively stopped the sale of these offending bonds and in 2019, the Legislature fixed this misuse of fundin. But it’s clear that controversy over the appropriate use of the ENRTF has not ended.
The consequences of inaction
Leaving Minnesotans’ $60 million in ENRTF money to be spent next year would not prevent job losses or help the state’s financial position, but it would create disruptions and uncertainty. The Trust Fund isn’t in any danger of being depleted, except by Legislative misuse. If these environmental projects are not funded this year, Minnesotans employed by it will soon be out of work, leaving them especially vulnerable in a struggling economy.
Meanwhile, issues like zebra mussels, water pollution, and pollinator decline don’t stop worsening just because Minnesota isn’t addressing them. Environmental protection is not a marginal concern – it’s critical to keeping our state livable. Minnesota voters understood this when we approved the Trust Fund three times.
The Legislature should come to an agreement
In the midst of COVID-19, compounding ongoing environmental challenges, and a radically altered economy, it would be a failure of responsibility for the Legislature to not continue supporting ENRTF projects this year. We know that the two legislative bodies can come to an agreement that preserves the critical programs which both of them support. We hope they find a way to pass funding for the many projects that have garnered broad overwhelming support from the LCCMR.