Capitol Update for May 1, 2009

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“I love it, I love to sit across from them and go to it”
-Willard Munger, May 6, 1994*

There was no doubt Willard Munger loved a good fight when it came to protecting the environment.  At 83 years of age and serving in his fifth decade in the Minnesota Legislature, he proved he still had some of his best fight in him when he interjected himself in the debate over storing nuclear waste at the Prairie Island nuclear plant.  The 1994 debate over storage of nuclear waste at the site on Prairie Island was one of the most significant forks in the road for environmental policy in Minnesota.  It was no doubt one of the biggest environment debates in Minnesota’s history and it was where many of Minnesota’s present environmental leaders first cut their teeth in environmental activism.

Munger adamantly opposed storage of nuclear waste along the Mississippi River, but soon realized there was a significant opportunity to greatly enhance Minnesota’s energy policy.  Toward the end of the 1994 legislative session he engaged in the battle with fervor, even challenging the Senate author of the nuclear storage to a fistfight during a conference committee.  The senator was nearly half his age.  When the dust settled from his bruising political battle, Munger secured the most progressive energy policies of any state in the nation.  Even though the Legislature allowed the nuclear storage, they put in place a commitment to over 400 MW of wind energy and 50 MW of biomass energy to be developed in less than a decade.

It is a certainty that many questioned the wisdom of Munger’s efforts to broker a deal.  Yet it is upon the shoulders of this renewable energy framework and vision that Minnesota stood when adopting the 2007 nation-leading renewable energy standard.  To this day, in many areas of environmental stewardship, we are simply riding the wake of the efforts this feisty Duluth hotel owner so boldly created.  His many efforts earned him the title in Minnesota politics of “Mr. Environment.”

Fifteen years after the 1994 nuclear debate, we are still feeling the repercussions.  As a result of that debate, there is a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants in Minnesota.  There has been an effort lately led by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and several legislators to remove the moratorium on nuclear power plants.  This is despite the fact that no utilities are seriously considering constructing a nuclear power plant in Minnesota, or anywhere else in America for that matter.  The Governor has indicated his support for removal of the moratorium even though his own climate change working group, made up mostly of businesspeople, indicated two years ago that state policymakers should focus on reaching our renewable energy goals before wasting time on repealing the nuclear power plant moratorium.

One of the biggest surprises in this legislative session was an amendment to repeal the moratorium offered to the Senate Energy Policy Bill (SF550).  There was little indication of a concerted effort to repeal the moratorium this session, but on April 2 the amendment to repeal the moratorium passed the Senate on a 42 to 24 vote.  Even the author of the Senate amendment, Steve Dille (R-Dassel), was surprised when his amendment passed, with 22 DFL members joining 20 Republican members. The only Republican in the Senate voting against the Dille amendment was Dennis Fredrickson (R-New Ulm).  Just like in 1994, it was the Senate pushing the less progressive policy.

On Thursday of this week, the House took up its version of the Energy Policy Bill and, as suspected, there was an amendment to repeal the moratorium on construction of new nuclear power plants offered on the House floor.  The difference was the Green Team had an opportunity to engage in the effort to defeat the amendment.  The amendment to repeal the moratorium was offered by Rep. Tim Faust (DFL-Hinckley).  Standing in the way was the ever capable House chair of the Energy Finance and Policy Division, Bill Hilty (DFL-Finlayson).  Willard Munger would have been proud of the strong and concerted defense put up by Hilty and his team.  Munger also would have appreciated how they worked so skillfully behind the scenes long before the floor vote to defend a critical environmental protection.  As a result, the Faust amendment failed on a 60 to 72 vote.

There were 15 DFL members who joined in with most of the Republican caucus to support the Faust amendment.  The only Republican voting against the amendment was Jim Abeler (Anoka).  Probably the most courageous vote and compelling floor speeches came from freshman representative Gail Kulick Jackson (DFL-Milaca).  She comes from a district that has many power plant workers connected with the nuclear power plant and the coal plants along the Mississippi River north of the Twin Cities.  She indicated she supported exploring nuclear power in her campaign, but after serving on the energy committee in the House, she came to the clear conclusion that the repeal of the moratorium was a simpleton solution to a far more complex issue.  I’m sure somewhere Willard Munger is making a little note on that paper he always kept in his pocket to do something for Rep. Kulick Jackson.

Another one of those environmental legacies that the legendary Willard Munger gave us was the concept of dedicating revenue for critical investments in environmental protection.  He was a champion of the lottery dollars going into environmental programming.  Again, it was this visionary view that helped establish the framework for the constitutional amendment dedicating sales tax revenue to conservation and water programs.  This week the Senate Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division adopted its recommendations for the expenditure of the constitutional legacy amendment money.  The $70 million a year of conservation money was appropriated along the lines suggested by the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council.  The marquee proposal of conservation money was $36 million over the biennium to establish forest management easements in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, commonly referred to as the Forest Legacy.

The Senate committee also recommended $151 million in appropriations over the next biennium to fund the Clean Water Legacy portion of the dedicated money.  Their recommendations mainly focused on  broad scientific-based programming around impaired waters.  The committee generally followed the recommendations of the Clean Water Council in the major areas of assessment of our lakes, rivers and streams; groundwater protection; and non-point source protection and preservation.  They provided less money for civic engagement and more investments in research and evaluation tools than was recommended by the Clean Water Council.

The committee also made recommendations for appropriations of the parks and trails funding recommended in the Constitution; they recommended $64.8 million of additional investments.  Again, the Senate has focused on broad funding categories to give the DNR flexibility to invest these dollars.  Over the biennium, they have recommended $28.5 million to the State Park Grants, $28.5 million for Metro Park Grants through the Metropolitan Council, and $7.8 million for Regional Park Grants through the DNR.  The House proposals will be coming out on Friday of this week and will be finalized early next week.

Interestingly, the significant increases in investments toward these environmental programs is due to language Munger helped develop to protect lottery proceeds dedicated to the environment from being raided by future legislatures seeking easy ways to balance budgets.  It was the very same language he helped create to avoid supplanting in the LCMR that was used as a model for the dedicated funding amendment now in our state’s Constitution.  As a result, constitutional funding is protected from raiding, and we should see significant investments in our Great Outdoors over the next 25 years.  This is because legislators are making a concerted effort to secure increased investments in protecting these critical investments in order to keep faith with the language prohibiting the money to be used to simply balance the budget.  Thanks, Willard.

If you want to learn more about Willard Munger’s environmental legacy, grab the recent book by his nephew Mark Munger entitled Mr. Environment: the Willard Munger Story.  You can even swing by the MEP booth at the Living Green Expo this weekend and enter a chance to win the book.  Rest assured the Green Team will continue working to build on Munger’s enduring legacy.

*Mr. Environment: the Willard Munger Story, Mark Munger, Cloquet River Press, 2009; pg. 441.  Quoting the Duluth News Tribune, May 6, 1994.

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