Budget bills weaken environmental protection, funding, raise constitutional issue

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“If I have to go on record and say global warming — I think it’s a farce, I think it’s a fallacy,” the new chair of the Minnesota Senate Environment Committee Ingebrigtsen told a joint legislative-citizens advisory group on environmental spending in late February. “I just don’t buy it. And I think there’s a lot of folks that don’t.” Since then, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) has been one of the leaders in crafting serious budget cuts and rollbacks for Minnesota environmental initiatives, together with Rep. Denny McNamara (R-Hastings), the chairman of the House Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Committee.

With a strong Republican majority in both the House and Senate, the Minnesota legislature has passed bills that would roll back regulations and restrictions on pollution and water standards, as well as making funding cuts and changes that critics say would unconstitutionally change the way that Legacy Amendment funds are used.

Under pressure from copper-mining interests, the House and Senate have both approved a provision in the omnibus environment bill that would suspend current water-quality standards for sulfate contamination. Wild rice interests oppose the legislation, and say that the 10 ppm level for wild rice cultivation waters set in 1973 should be continued. Provisions in the House and Senate omnibus environment funding bills would reduce copper-mining restrictions and increase the sulfate limits for wild rice waters fivefold. Some Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk and Representative Tom Rukavina, both from northeastern Minnesota, also support increasing sulfate limits.

On March 29, by a vote of 37-28, the Minnesota Senate passed SF 1029, the omnibus environment, energy, and natural resources finance bill. On April 14, by a vote of 42-18, the Senate passed SF 86, which would repeal part of 2007’s Next Generation Act requiring any coal-plant pollution be offset. The House is expected to take up the issue after the Easter/Passover recess.

“All of these issues continue to be promoted by large special interests,” says Steve Morse, executive director of the nonpartisan organization Minnesota Environmental Partnership. “They’re proposing changing the pollution standards for what can be dumped into Lake Pepin; they’re talking about a two-year moratorium on water standards dealing with feedlots. There is a whole litany of measures that only benefit special interests. We really hope Dayton vetoes these and doesn’t take us backwards.”

Funding cuts, shifts: Constitutional or not?

In 2008, voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which would amend the constitution to dedicate 3/8ths of one percent of sales tax revenue to: “protect, enhance, and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve our arts and cultural heritage; to support our parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore our lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater.”

Article XI, Section 15 of the Minnesota Constitution states, in part, that: The dedicated money under this section must supplement traditional sources of funding for these purposes and may not be used as a substitute.

However, said Morse, the House and Senate omnibus environment, energy, and natural resources finance bills do just that.

“Because we voted on new money, they are taking away pre-existing tax support, though citizens actually devoted to spend more in clean water initiatives,” Morse said. “Our concern is that they are directly substituting this new money, which is not what the constitution says and not what the public voted for.”

“On the path to yesterday”

The current omnibus environment finance bills, Morse said, specifically target the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources for disproportionate cuts.

Under McNamara’s House File 1010, the House version of the omnibus environment, energy, and natural resources finance bill, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would receive a 64 percent reduction in general funds. The proposed cuts would specifically eliminate Clean Water Partnership grants. The Department of Natural Resources would receive a 29 percent cut to its water programs.

Under the Senate omnibus environment funding bill, the MPCA would receive a 30 percent reduction in general funds, which would have a significant impact on the Clean Water Partnership and county feedlot grants. The DNR will receive a 15 percent cut to its water programs.

The Clean Water Partnership was approved by the Minnesota Legislature in 1987 in an effort to control nonpoint sources of pollution through watershed management and to protect and improve surface and ground water in Minnesota.

Morse said that by disproportionately removing funds for clean-water initiatives from the state’s budget, the House and Senate not only are in direct violation of the state constitution, but also set dangerous standards for air and water quality that could devastate Minnesota’s rives, lakes, and wildlife.

“It takes us off the path of our clean energy future and moves us back to the path of yesterday with health hazards,” he said.

 

CORRECTION: Thanks to a reader, who noted the need to clarify the difference between the Senate Omnibus bill (SF 1029) and SF 86, which is a roll back on provisions of the Next Gen Energy Act, and said: “Going forward, the contents of SF 1029 are now contained in the senate version of HF 1010 (legislative procedure – House sent their bill to Senate first so that becomes the name of the bill they negotiate in conference committee to come to some compromise between HF 1010 and SF 1029).”