Capitol Update for April 10, 2009

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“We have been informed that charitable hands have smoothed the later path of Dred and his Harriet, so that a freedom so tardily come by, has not been attended by its usual awkwardness, abuse and suffering.”
– Dred Scott’s obituary, New York Times, September 21, 1858

Life is full of strange twists of fate.  Minnesota’s Fort Snelling played a small role in one of the strangest twists of fate ever to have occurred in American history.  Minnesota claims a proud position as the free territory in the infamous Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott vs. Sanford which gave Mr. Scott legal claim to freedom.  The United States Supreme Court ruled that Scott could not gain his freedom as he claimed by simply passing through a territory where slavery was illegal.  The Court’s reasoning was because he was no more than chattel and could not claim the protections of our Constitution.  The 1857 decision was one of the sparks that led to the Civil War, but a little known fact is that the Court’s decision — or at least the publicity around it — eventually led to the emancipation of Dred Scott and his wife in an unusual twist of fate.

Dred Scott was first owned by the family of Captain Peter Blow in Missouri where Dred was the beloved playmate, adult companion, and friend of their son, Taylor.  Hard times befell the Blow family and Dred was sold together with his wife in the 1830s to a U.S. Army doctor by the name of John Emerson.  Dr. Emerson, his wife Irene Sandford Emerson, and his slaves served for several years at Fort Snelling; the fort at that time was governed by the Northwest Ordinance which prohibited slavery.  Emerson eventually returned to the slave state of Missouri with his wife and slaves.  Dr. Emerson died prematurely in 1843, whereupon his brother-in-law John Sandford served as the executor of his estate with his sister Irene Sandford Emerson the primary beneficiary.

The Scotts attempted to purchase their freedom from the estate for $300, but were refused by Irene who needed the money she received from renting out the slaves in Missouri.  Irene eventually moved east to start a new life while still receiving the slave rents from Missouri through the estate managed by her brother.  The Scotts brought suit to seek their freedom starting in 1846 and the matter slowly wound through the legal system with the help of abolitionists.  The case eventually reached the Supreme Court years later in 1857.  At the same time the case was concluding, John Stanford was put into an insane asylum and the Missouri courts had to formally declare the owner of the Scott family to be now Irene Stanford [Emerson] Chaffee and her new husband, the honorable congressman from Massachusetts, Calvin C. Chaffee.

Some stories have it that the staunch anti-slavery Republican Calvin C. Chaffee was completely unaware that the rents his wife was receiving from the estate of her late husband were for slaves.  Legend has it that he found out about it while reading the morning paper.  Given his strong position against slavery, Chaffee immediately moved to emancipate the Scott family.  Legal proceedings of Missouri had proceeded to such a point that in order to expedite emancipation it required a resident of the state of Missouri to take ownership of the Scott family.  Enter again Scott’s longtime friend, Taylor Blow, who gladly accepted temporary ownership of the Scott family for the purpose of formerly emancipating them within their state on May 26, 1857.  Despite the horrendous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Dred Scott would die a year later from tuberculosis, a free man thanks to one of the strangest twists of fate.

The legislative process is always filled with unexpected twists of fate.  The most positive twist of fate for the environment and conservation community so far has been the resulting benefit from passage of the Constitutional amendment to dedicate resources to our Great Outdoors.  When this effort started, no one would have ever guessed that the first year of implementation would be in the midst of our state’s deepest budget crisis since the Great Depression.  As a result, the environmental and conservation community has been in its best position in over a decade to secure some meaningful investments despite the economic crisis.  The Legislature took their first steps last week towards developing their proposal of where these additional dedicated dollars should be invested.  This first step came from the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division when they adopted their recommendations for the Parks and Trail Fund and the Clean Water Fund. 

The parks and trails recommendations are moving forward as HF1493 authored by Rep. Leon Lillie (DFL-North St. Paul).  The parks and trails community is very pleased with the general direction of legislation and the leadership of Rep. Lillie.  The bill appropriates $16.95 million in the first year of the biennium and $35.9 million in the second year.  The House committee agreed with the Governor by leaving about $15 million of the forecasted sales tax revenue dedicated for the Parks and Trail fund unspent.  Fifty-eight percent of the appropriation goes to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the other 42% goes to the Metropolitan Council for funding of our metro regional park system.  The legislation for the most part does not identify any specific dollars for particular earmarks, but does outline for the DNR projects for which the money could be spent.  They include several projects for installation of solar panels and other energy saving projects.  The bill does earmark $1.6 million to the Minnesota Conservation Corps to do work within our state parks and trails system.

The recommendations for the Clean Water Legacy Fund portion of the Constitutional amendment is moving forward as HF1973, authored by the chair of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division, Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL – Minneapolis).  The proposal adopted by the committee differs from the recommendation of the broad coalition of environment, business, agriculture and local governments affectionately known as the G-16.  The first difference is in the overall amount of the appropriation.  The committee follows a recommendation of the Governor to appropriate only $118 million in the next biennium, leaving about $20 million to be appropriated in the future.  The spreadsheet indicates the $20 million is being held back for groundwater protection and prevention.  The G-16 recommends getting all of the revenue on the ground as soon as possible.  As Paul Aasen from MCEA stated at a recent press conference, “every dollar spent is a dollar going to start a green job in Minnesota, which helps the economy.”

The second major difference is in the appropriation to the Pollution Control Agency for water quality assessment and monitoring.  The G-16 recommended $12.6 million to monitor and assess our waters, but the committee recommended no money from the Legacy funds.  The third major difference is a significant reduction in the non-point source funding directed to the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR).  Rep. Wagenius indicated that both of these areas will be dealt with in the committee’s omnibus finance bill she is putting together.  She stated this is to avoid any questions of supplanting.  Though this approach is different than what is recommended by the G-16, the chair has proven herself to be a stalwart defender of the environment and deserves the benefit of the doubt.  Therefore, we will have to wait to see how the omnibus bill works together with HF1973 before passing judgment.

Both HF1493 and HF1973 move on to the Cultural and Outdoor Resource Finance Division chaired by Rep. Mary Murphy (DFL – Hermantown) where they will be combined with the Lessard Council recommendations and arts/cultural recommendations.  The Senate still has not revealed their proposals on any of the specific constitutional amendment funds.  They will start coming together quickly next week when the Legislature returns from break on Tuesday.

A negative twist of fate for the Green team has been the struggles we’ve experienced with work on the Minnesota Clean Car Act.  With the election of President Obama, we anticipated that the removal of the long-standing opposition from the federal government to issuing states waivers to adopt stricter emission standards for automobiles would open the way for passage of more stringent standards in Minnesota.  Unfortunately, the absolute opposite has occurred.  Minnesota legislators are sensing that the Obama administration is poised to adopt more stringent federal standards which will make adoption of state standards an unnecessary difficult effort.  No matter how much we continue to point out that the federal standards are only a wish and will not be adopted for several years, it has been difficult to generate enthusiasm for Minnesota to be a leader on global warming pollution reductions.  However, we have not given up the fight and will continue to take the message to voters in Minnesota who have clearly indicated they want more fuel-efficient and cleaner running vehicles.

Another disappointing twist of fate occurred this last week in our effort to pass a strong global warming reduction goal for communities within the seven county metropolitan area when they do their future planning.  The Building Sensible Communities Act was making great progress through the Legislature over the first three months, passing 11 policy committees.  Unfortunately, it has run into some significant opposition in the finance committees despite the fact that it does not use any general fund dollars.  The Metropolitan Council has made the bogus claim that the legislation will cost nearly $2 billion in additional transit obligations.  The Council has also objected to the use of the Livable Communities property tax levy money as a source for the planning grants and University of Minnesota transportation study.  As a result, the bill was tabled in the Senate Transportation Finance Committee by the chief author Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL – Minneapolis) in hopes of finding a solution in the near future.  An effort to attach a watered-down version of the proposal on to another bill dealing with the Metropolitan Counsel legislation failed on an 8-9 vote.  Several of the DFL members who voted against this amendment in the finance committee had supported it in previous committees.

The Building Sensible Communities team has strategies to make sure the critical elements like the school citing, Department of Transportation planning goals, and wetlands provisions are in other vehicle bills.  Unfortunately, the University of Minnesota transportation study was one of the most important elements and it was part of the provisions that failed on the 8-9 vote.   The Building Sensible Communities team will need to work hard to swing the sentiment of legislators on the use of state dollars to move this important global warming pollution reduction effort forward.

Certainly there will be more twists of fate as we move through the legislative session.  Next week each of the individual finance divisions will have their proposals sent to the full finance committee.  The Legislature also set a goal of April 22 to have all the finance bills ready for floor action and May 7 to have all of the conference committees finished with their work on the major finance bills.  That should give the Legislature two weeks to negotiate with the Governor’s office and possibly send him multiple alternatives of their funding proposals by the constitutional deadline for the Legislature to adjourn on May 18.  Of course, this assumes that the House and Senate can work out their differences by May 7.  In other words, there are many more opportunities for strange twists of fate to play out, so stay tuned.

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