2019 legislative update: a special session in the works

by Trevor Russell

The 2019 legislative session concluded on the constitutionally required May 20 deadline without passage of most major policy and budget bills on the docket.

While the governor and legislators were able to come to a global agreement on an overall budget, many of the policy and funding items in each specific bill were not negotiated prior to adjournment.

As a result, many major water and conservation issues are yet to be decided. 

Here are our positions on some of the major issues still in play. And if you're not one already, consider joining our 2,000+ River Guardians so you can easily and quickly take action on these issues when your help and voice is needed the most. 

Funding for Forever Green, CREP and SWCDs  

One of the major outstanding issues is how the funding for these three critical and complementary programs can be resolved as a win for all three. As we noted earlier in the session, such a solution involves a compromise between the Clean Water Fund, bonding and the environment budget bill.

  • We support the full funding for Forever Green at the full $10 million for the biennium. This initiative has the power to usher in innovative and durable agricultural cropping systems that improve water quality, soil health, habitat and farm prosperity. While we’d prefer general fund money, the only remaining option is that it be funded through the Clean Water Fund.
  • The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) provides important conservation funding to protect and improve water quality. However, as past versions of this valuable program have been funded entirely by bonding, we strongly support funding for CREP through a bonding bill this session as well.
  • We also strongly support funding for Minnesota's Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs), as these local offices are key in getting conservation efforts on the ground in Minnesota. This funding should be allocated from the state’s general fund, as is traditionally the case when providing state support for local government operations. In the event that Clean Water Fund money is used to fund any portion of SCWD operations, we strongly support language that would automatically repay the Clean Water Fund from any future forecasted state budget surplus until such time as the fund is fully restored.

Bonding for metro river projects

In addition to pushing for CREP (see above) funding, FMR is pushing to include funds for a new river project in St. Paul, but not one in Minneapolis:

  • FMR advocates for $3 million to plan a new River Learning Center at Watergate Marina in St. Paul. Part of the city’s 2013 Great River Passage Master Plan, the center could combine a National Park Service headquarters and visitor center with year-round environmental learning and outdoor recreation experiences. 
  • Along with a number of allied community organizations, however, we do not support $2 million or other bonding funding for a private concert stadium at Minneapolis's Upper Harbor Terminal. Public funds should not be used to support a private music venue that has generated so much community opposition. 

Bonding bills require a 60% majority to pass so broad agreement from both parties will be required for adoption.

Raiding the Environmental Trust Fund (again)

You may recall that in 2018 lawmakers raided the state’s voter-approved Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund. In response, FMR joined eight other conservation organizations to initiate a lawsuit, resulting in a fix to the raid earlier this session. Unfortunately, the Senate is attempting to raid the fund yet again this session. We strongly oppose such a move in the final environmental budget bill.

Reinstating the MPCA Citizens' Board  

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens' Board, in existence for 40 years, was eliminated in a controversial fashion in the final hours of the 2015 session. The Citizens' Board allowed for democratic participation in the decision making on the environmental issues facing our communities. FMR strongly supports the House position of full reinstatement for the MPCA Citizens' Board.

Preventing salt pollution

In response to increasing chloride (salt) pollution to our freshwater resources, we supported a new, voluntary certification program to train salt applicators on best practices and secure limits on slip-and-fall liability when proper deicing practices are used. This approach improves our business climate while reducing chloride pollution to our waters. FMR supports the House position, which includes funding for this initiative.

The Safe Drinking Water Fee

Both the House and Senate versions of the Omnibus Health and Human Services bills included an increase to the state’s Safe Drinking Water Fee from $6.36 to $9.72 annually per connection. The current fee was set in 2005 and inflation has increased 28% since.

This important funding source allows the Minnesota Department of Health to test water, review water treatment plants, train and certify water system operators, inspect water systems and solve critical drinking water problems. We hope the final conference committee compromise bill includes an increase to this important water protection fee. 

Environmental rollbacks

A series of troubling environmental policy rollbacks are still in play as negotiations move forward. Here are the ones we’re watching most closely, most of which originated in the Senate’s environment bill:

  • A single-county veto of any new water quality standard: This Senate position requires all 87 county boards to approve a water quality standard before it can be enacted, regardless of scientific and technical evaluation by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
  • The groundwater management “gag rule”: This Senate position bars the state from talking publicly about groundwater management plans, with the exception of media inquiries and sharing some information on public meetings (time, location and agenda). This approach undermines public trust and community participation in groundwater management planning.
  • A 16-year industrial pollution holiday: There is no need for a 16-year exemption for industries to comply with new or upgraded water quality standards following the construction of a new facility.  
  • Redefining groundwater sustainability: This Senate position redefines “sustainable” water use in contradiction to the definition recommended by the Department of Natural Resources experts. It's also a one-size-fits-all definition that does not take into account the variability of local conditions.
  • Legislative approval of permit fees: This Senate position requires legislative approval to adjust the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's permit fees. These fees are established to cover the reasonable costs of reviewing applications and issuing certifications and permits. Requiring legislative approval could create additional delays in accessing funds to efficiently process applications.
  • Unpermitted transfers between water bodies: Water transfers between different water bodies risks moving pollution and aquatic invasive species, which is why permits may be needed.

What’s next?

The legislature has combined most individual pieces of legislating into large “omnibus bills” addressing specific topic areas (education, environment, agriculture, taxes, etc.).

While the overall budget agreement between the legislature and the governor lays out budget targets for each omnibus bill, conference committees made of up House and Senate members must still work out the final budget items within each bill, as well as any related policy provisions. Legislative leaders hope to complete this work yet this week.

Once these agreements are made, the governor will call a special session, during which all bills must be passed by both the House and Senate. Once passed, they must be signed by the governor before becoming law.

Become a River Guardian

We count on our River Guardians to help us advocate on important issues like the 2019 omnibus environment bill.

Sign up to become a River Guardian and we'll let you know when important river issues like this arise. Our emails make it quick and easy to contact decision-makers and make your voice heard.

River Guardians are also invited to special events (including happy hours like this one, May 28) where you can learn more about important legislative and metro river corridor issues.