2021 Legislative session wrap-up

by Trevor Russell

Lawmakers narrowly avoided a partial government shutdown in the special session but managed to pass important legislation including approval of Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund projects like our pollinator habitat at Ole Olson Park in North Minneapolis.

After the clock ran out on lawmakers during the regular legislative session this spring, lawmakers reconvened for a special session that wrapped up on June 30. Their budget agreement funded our core environmental agencies for the next two years and averted a partial government shutdown.

As we share some of the successes from this year, we want to thank FMR member-donors and River Guardians. When we speak at the Legislature, our words have weight because of you.

Here’s where major water-related environmental bills stand at the long-delayed conclusion of the 2021 legislative session.

The Environment Bill

The governor signed the environment bill shortly after passage early in the special session. The bill, officially called the Omnibus Environment and Natural Resources Policy & Finance Bill, passed the House by a 99-34 vote and the Senate by a vote of 49-14.

The budget includes modest funding for some important natural resource and conservation work across the state. Highlights include a $7.7 million salary bump for the state’s conservation officers, $1.4 million for grants to replace failing septic systems, $2.5 million for accelerated tree planting, $1 million to the University of Minnesota for aquatic invasive species research, and $800,000 for aquatic invasive species prevention grants.

Two big policy wins

The bill also contained a pair of high-profile policy provisions that will help protect Minnesota’s water resources.

  • PASSED — Ban on PFAS in food packaging
    Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of synthetic “forever chemicals” that have made headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years and that turn up in our environment – including the Mississippi River. Surprisingly, these chemicals are currently legal for use in food packaging. This provision will prohibit the manufacture and sale of a food package made with PFAS. The provision takes effect on January 1, 2024. Hats off to our friends at Clean Water Action, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and others who successfully led the charge to phase out PFAS in food packaging this session.
  • PASSED — Preventing unlimited exports of Minnesota’s groundwater
    FMR readers will recall that in 2019 a “water train” proposal aimed to install a pair of massive groundwater pumps in Dakota County to mine groundwater and ship it out of state via rail. This new policy language prohibits the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from issuing new water-use permits appropriating more than 1,000,000 gallons per year for the bulk transport or sale of water for use more than 50 miles from the site of appropriation. This excellent provision prevents future corporate profiteers from exporting our most precious natural resources.

Rollbacks defeated

Perhaps the biggest win in the environment bill was that a handful of anti-clean-water provisions were left out of the final package. We are thrilled that these provisions, which take direct aim at some critical water resource protections in the state, were left out of the environment bill during final negotiations.

  • DEFEATED — 16-year pollution holiday
    This item aimed to give wastewater treatment facilities a 16-year holiday before having to update their permits to address new water quality standards (for pollutants like sulfate or nitrate).
  • DEFEATED — Rollbacks to calcareous fen protections
    Calcareous fens are a rare and notably fragile form of wetland. This provision would have allowed nearby high-capacity groundwater wells to drain groundwater these wetlands rely on, opening the door to requiring taxpayers to pay expenses associated with any permit disputes.
  • DEFEATED — Groundwater “gag rule”
    This bizarre attempted rule aimed to prohibit agency staff from discussing the state’s Groundwater Management Areas work with the public — undermining public trust in the agency while also violating Minnesota’s Data Practices Act.
  • DEFEATED — Public Waters Inventory (PWI) restrictions
    Minnesota is home to thousands of lakes, wetlands and streams over which the state has regulatory jurisdiction. These are known as public waters, and they're included on statewide Public Waters Inventory (PWI) maps. This provision would have undermined the state’s authority to correct errors in the inventory, and would also have given local counties effective “veto authority” over such changes even if local waters clearly meet the definition of "public waters."
  • DEFEATED — Limits on public petitions for environmental review
    This provision would have limited petitions for environmental review only to residents of the county (or adjacent county) where a project is proposed. Given the fact that our waters belong to all of us and those far downstream can be impacted by upstream activities, we are grateful that this shortsighted provision was defeated.

Clean cars and Commissioner Bishop

We would be remiss if we failed to also note that the final bill did not include the Senate’s language repealing the state’s existing authority to set standards for vehicle emissions and prevent future state regulations on automobile pollution.

While this provision was ultimately defeated, it came at a high cost. The Senate announced they would reconvene to hold hearings designed to oust Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop over her support for the governor’s proposed Clean Cars initiative. After senators informed the governor of her impending ouster, Commissioner Bishop resigned.

Environmental Trust Fund

The voter-approved Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund uses lottery money to supplement investments in Minnesota’s natural resources. The fund was established following voter approval of a constitutional amendment in 1988. The bill has (until recently) been free from partisan politics, but since both last year’s bill (which was never approved) and this year’s bill were wrapped into the Omnibus Environment Bill, funding for both years was on the line during the special session. We are grateful that both provisions passed.

  • PASSED — 2020 Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund bill:
    This article included many excellent provisions, including FMR pollinator habitat projects at River Heights Park (Inver Grove Heights), Mississippi River Gorge Regional Park (Minneapolis) and Ole Olson Park (Minneapolis).
  • PASSED — 2021 Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund bill
    This article included funding for FMR's work to restore the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary (St. Paul), Applewood Park (Maplewood) and Carver Preserve (Maplewood).

Unlike the Clean Water Fund bill (see below), FMR was pleased to see that lawmakers avoided unconstitutional uses of the funds, and largely stuck to the projects vetted by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources – the body charged with making recommendations to the Legislature on how best to spend the fund's dollars.

The Clean Water Fund

Lawmakers were able to successfully appropriate the Clean Water Fund as a part of the Omnibus Legacy Bill. The bill spends voter-approved Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment dollars, and passed the House by an 89-39 vote, and the Senate by a vote of 66-0.  

While the bill funds our top legislative priority (Forever Green) and other excellent programs, it also raided this dedicated fund for work that has traditionally been funded elsewhere.

  • FUNDED — Forever Green
    The University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative is a research and market development program creating the next generation of “clean-water crops” like Kernza and camelina that reduce runoff pollution and improve habitat while supporting farmers' bottom lines. The final bill included $4.0 million for Forever Green – a modest cut from current funding levels.
  • RAIDED — Funding for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP)
    The final bill raids $5.6 million dollars in Clean Water Fund money for the Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) program for CREP. CREP has traditionally been funded through a state bonding bill rather than the Clean Water Fund. FMR opposes using dedicated funds to pay for programs or activities that were formerly funded in other ways. Dedicated funds should supplement not supplant non-dedicated sources of funding for environmental programs.
  • RAIDED — Funding for Soil & Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs)
    The final bill raids $24 million in Clean Water Fund dollars for use as base funding for SCWDs. Local government operations, including SWCD operations, have historically been funded through a combination of state general funds and local funds rather than the Clean Water Fund. While FMR strongly supports funding for SWCDs, we strongly opposed using dedicated funds to pay for activities that were formerly paid for with non-dedicated sources of funds.

Join the River Guardians

We count on over 2,000 River Guardians to help us shape legislation to protect the Mississippi River. Sign up to be a River Guardian and we'll let you know when important river issues arise and help you quickly and easily share your values with your legislators.

River Guardians and member-donors are also invited to special events (including happy hours) to learn more about important legislative and metro river corridor issues and to toast our accomplishments.