Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
As the Minnesota Legislature began its first special session 2021 last week, the DFL-controlled house and GOP-controlled Senate faced a deadline of June 30tht to reach deals on state budgets and policy – otherwise, a government shutdown was on the horizon. As of this writing, a shutdown seems unlikely, with most budget bills passed and on their way to Governor Walz for signature.
While these budget bills were compromises, they contain better results for Minnesota’s environment and communities than in other recent years. These successes are a testament to strong efforts by the environmental community, legislative allies, and Minnesotans who made their voices heard.
Things looked tense for entities like the DNR (including the state park system), the Pollution Control Agency, and the Board of Water and Soil Resources over the past month, with the Senate threatening to block funding for those agencies unless the omnibus Environment bill blocked or delayed Governor Walz’s Clean Cars Rule. But after pressure from Minnesotans to drop that demand and pass a budget, the Senate left Clean Cars out of the equation, and those programs will be fully funded. In addition, the Legislature finally passed appropriations for two years from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund to support numerous important restoration and research projects around the state. Minnesota voters created that fund by supporting a constitutional amendment to improve the state’s environment, and it’s good to see the Legislature living up to their responsibility to wisely spend it.
The Legislature should have gone much further to combat climate change and water and soil degradation, but did pass nearly $5 million to plant trees for carbon sequestration and to combat emerald ash borer. It also agreed on a total of $3.75 million to support farmers’ efforts to implement soil-healthy farming practices.
The Environment bill’s impact on policies that keep Minnesotans and our environment safe was more mixed. On the one hand, the bill includes a welcome ban on PFAS, a harmful and ubiquitous “forever chemical” that does not break down, in food packaging in the state. On the other, it rolled back a rule intended to reduce manure runoff from factory farms, a key contributor to declining water quality. That rollback may set up a conflict between Minnesota and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Like the other omnibus bills, the Energy and Commerce bill was a compromise on many fronts, but there were several bright spots. The Legislature passed welcome investments in solar energy that would bring panels to schools, universities, and landfills. It will also support energy efficiency innovation – a key part of reducing our climate emissions. Combined with other provisions in the bill as well as the ECO Act passed earlier this year, this budget will support quality jobs in clean energy across the state. We need to move much farther, much faster on energy, but each victory is an opportunity to open the door wider – if we keep working to persuade state leaders to do so.
The Transportation bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support, features several strong wins for our community. It will support new rapid transit lines in the Twin Cities Metro, new bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and a second daily Amtrak train from Minneapolis to Chicago.
The bill wasn’t all wins, however, as it did not support the goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled, and included funding for highway expansions. It also failed to include Metro Transit fare enforcement reform, which would have made riding transit more equitable for communities of color. In order to cut emissions from transportation – our most climate-polluting sector – we need to reduce the amount that Minnesotans drive by providing fast and convenient alternatives, not continuing to heavily subsidize driving.
What comes next
Governor Walz pledged this week that he would relinquish his pandemic-related emergency powers on August 1st, and while legislative drama often appears unexpectedly, little more action is expected this year.
But much work remains undone. Minnesota has many emissions cuts to make and little time to make them in order to protect our communities, our environment, and our climate. The federal government’s possible action on clean infrastructure may help, but every state and city needs to do its part. We need to build on the achievements we won this session, build on the momentum for change, and win truly bold comprehensive climate action in our state.