Written by Scott Strand – As many of you are aware, Governor Dayton vetoed the environment and agriculture finance “omnibus” bill last Saturday. That was a surprise to many, and the governor has said publicly that it was his most difficult veto decision. Minnesota’s environmental movement, including MCEA, did strongly urge a veto of this bill, and the governor deserves credit for making this decision.
For those who follow the legislative process, the problem is not an uncommon one. Nearly every year, the legislative leadership commits to keeping so-called “policy” items out of the “finance” or “budget” bills, so that policy bills get a fair debate and members get to vote on them on the merits instead of under the gun of getting a budget passed on time. Nearly every year, that commitment is broken to some extent, but this environment/agriculture budget bill was unusual.
Here is a partial list of anti-environment policy provisions in the budget bill, few if any of which could have passed on their own merits:
–Elimination of the MPCA Citizens’ Board, a proposal never heard in committee, never passed by either house;
–Amnesty for polluters who “self-report”: This would allow violators who “self-report” to hold off MPCA investigations and avoid penalties indefinitely.
–Suspending enforcement of sulfate standard for wild rice waters, and suspending enforcement of phosphorus and nitrogen standards for wastewater treatment plants in the Red River Valley, both pretty clear violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
–New exemption from solid waste rules for the copper mining industry, again never introduced as a bill, never heard in any committee.
–Prohibition of informal guidance, policy statements, or interpretations from the MPCA without formal rulemaking.
–New requirements for duplicative peer review and cost analysis (no analysis of benefits) to delay new water quality standards
–Requiring state to provide three weeks advance notice to project proponents, without public disclosure, when agency decides to do discretionary environmental review
This budget bill also breaks a compromise agreement among energy, agriculture, and environmental stakeholders, that would have encouraged the use of perennial crops for the next generation biofuel industry. And, it diverts almost $60 million from a dedicated fund for closed landfills to general revenues, in effect cutting general fund spending on the environment by 24%.
All of that stuff needs to come out of the bill during the upcoming special session.
There are some positive policy ideas in the bill–a greatly weakened buffer proposal, and amendments to facilitate better mitigation of wetland losses in northeastern Minnesota. They are, however, not worth any of the negative provisions on this list.
MCEA, of course, hopes that the governor and the senators who voted “no” on this bill, defying the Senate leadership, will stand firm. They certainly could use some encouragement to do so, and now is the ideal time to contact the governor and your local representatives and tell them to keep the bad environmental policy out of the environment bill.
This is a good example of the legislature at its worst–using power over the budget process to jam in tax or regulatory breaks for favored local constituents that would not survive an open, fair process. We should expect better.