REGIONAL—Just in time for Earth Day, conservation groups across the state are sounding the alarm about a legislative session that they say has devolved into a wholesale assault on Minnesota’s …
REGIONAL—Just in time for Earth Day, conservation groups across the state are sounding the alarm about a legislative session that they say has devolved into a wholesale assault on Minnesota’s environmental standards and on the public’s right to weigh-in on behalf of environmental protection.
“What’s amazing is the scale and scope of the attack,” said Steve Morse, a former state senator who now leads the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. The partnership includes more than two dozen conservation groups, including some from northeastern Minnesota.
Many of the policy provisions that so worry environmental groups are tucked into large omnibus budget bills. Perhaps the worst offender, according to Morse, is the Senate Omnibus Environment and Natural Resources budget bill, co-authored by Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. Morse said that tucked away in the massive spending bill are a wide range of policy changes, including:
‰ A suspension of water quality standards and rules adopted between mid-2014 and mid-2019, if the standards would require a facility to make upgrades to protect water quality.
‰ Allowing corporations to write their own environmental impact statements and limiting the right of the government and the public to review and modify such statements.
‰ Sharp limitations on the ability of citizens to challenge permitting decisions on mining. The bill would only allow local governments, or landowners directly adjoining the proposed mine, to seek a contested case hearing on a permit.
‰ A prohibition on the DNR from regulating the use of lead shot, which is known to kill significant numbers of waterfowl that feed on lead shot that falls into shallow lake sediments.
‰ Major cuts to the Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources.
The bill has created a rare split in the Iron Range delegation, with Sen. Tom Bakk currently opposing the bill. But that may be more a matter of political tactics, said Bakk. “Tomassoni probably would have voted no, except he wanted to be on the conference committee,” said Bakk. “And you have to have voted for it to be on the committee.”
Bakk said the bill, as approved by the full Senate last week, “has a lot of problems,” including some of the funding reductions for state agencies that work on environmental protection. “They gutted funding to the PCA,” said Bakk. “You know, we complain all the time that they are too slow on permitting. But making deep cuts to their budget won’t make that any better.”
Bakk also said the bill makes sizable cuts to the DNR budget, including for forestry and parks, cuts that could hit northern Minnesota particularly hard. “That’s a pretty significant problem,” he said. Combined, the bill cuts about $40 million from environmental and natural resource agencies and programs.
The problems, however, aren’t limited to the environment and natural resources bill according to Morse. Other state funding bills seek to drain state piggy banks earmarked for outdoor programs, environmental remediation, or other state agencies with environmental functions.
While the Legislature has trimmed such budgets and tapped dedicated environmental accounts in the past, Morse said those cuts have always come during tight budget years when the state was grappling with large deficits. This year, with a Legislature enjoying a $1.6 billion surplus, Morse said the cuts and proposed fund transfers are astonishing. “It’s just seems to be mean-spirited,” he said.
According to Morse, the jobs and energy omnibus bill contains more troubling provisions, including one that would allow Enbridge Energy to use eminent domain to build its proposed Line 3 pipeline without requiring the company to demonstrate a need for the project, as is typical with expansions to the state’s energy infrastructure. “They wouldn’t have to document that it’s in the state’s best interests, and they’d be exempted from any environmental review.”
When asked if this session is one of the worst he’s seen for the environment, Morse, a longtime veteran of the Senate and environmental policymaking, was unequivocal. “It’s the worst year ever. From top to bottom, it’s horrendous.”
Little public support for anti-environment measures
While some advocates of loosening environmental rules have claimed that the most recent presidential election showed support for such measures, Morse said recent polling by his organization points to just the opposite. “We wondered what the public was really thinking, so we hired two polling firms, one Republican and one Democrat.” The firms sampled 500 Minnesotans in a survey that oversampled rural parts of the state and found overwhelming support for maintaining current environmental rules, and many wanted tougher laws and better enforcement. “Only 12 percent support weakening the rules,” said Morse. “The only ones who voiced support for that were Republican men,” he said. Unfortunately for environmental advocates, Republican men are currently in charge at the Minnesota Legislature.
While the current bills are loaded with troubling policy and sharp funding cuts, environmental supporters and some legislators remain hopeful that the bills will have to change substantially in conference committees or they’ll face a likely veto from Gov. Mark Dayton.
And the governor will hold a pretty hefty carrot in any negotiations, notes Bakk. “The Republicans really want a tax bill this year,” said Bakk, and notes that DFLers are generally content to leave taxes alone. “We don’t need a tax bill,” said Bakk, and notes that the GOP desire for one should give the governor substantial leverage as the two sides slowly move, or not, towards some kind of session-ending accommodation.
While Morse and the members of his coalition remain hopeful that Gov. Dayton can hold off the worst of the environmental policy changes, he fears the sheer scale of the GOP effort could make the governor’s job more challenging. “Our concern is how much of the bad stuff will remain in these bills if-and-when he does sign them. They’ve thrown a lot of spaghetti at the wall.”