The clock runs out on the Minnesota Legislature

by Trevor Russell

On the final day of the regular 2021 legislative session, lawmakers agreed to a $52 billion two-year state budget, but the clock ran out before they could pass any meaningful legislation. As a result, Minnesota will once again need an additional or special session to wrap up its legislative work.

Most environmental policy and funding decisions were not resolved by the budget deal and remain in play for the special session.

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

Omnibus Environment Bill

The House and Senate proposed two very different strategies on environment funding and policy this session, culminating in fireworks when the Senate essentially threatened to shut down state parks and other environmental agency activities over their opposition to the existing gubernatorial authority relating to clean cars.

The agreed-upon environment budget target includes a modest increase ($30 million over the next two years) in environmental spending. This is excellent news, and a far cry from the Senate’s proposal, which reduced Gov. Tim Walz's recommendations for three frontline environmental agencies by 33% (MN Pollution Control Agency), 11% (MN Department of Natural Resources) and 27% (MN Board of Water & Soil Resources).

However, the broad agreement doesn’t specify individual policy or funding items, and there are no guarantees that lawmakers will be able to agree on contentious environmental policy debates in a special session. As a result, funding for the bulk of Minnesota’s environmental agencies and services remains unresolved.

Omnibus Legacy Bill

The Clean Water Fund (Legacy Amendment dollars for clean water) is included in the Omnibus Legacy Bill. While both the House and Senate versions of the bill include funding for our top priority (Forever Green) and for targeted wellhead protection efforts, both versions also raid this dedicated fund for work that has traditionally been funded elsewhere.

  • 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 House recommends $4.5 million, while the Senate recommends just $4.0 million (a slight cut from current funding levels). With full funding, the Forever Green Initiative will make Minnesota a leader in developing more sustainable, profitable and diverse cropping systems that improve water quality, soil health and habitat, while boosting rural economic development and farm profitability.
  • Targeted wellhead protection work: Both the House and Senate include $5 million for efforts to protect vulnerable drinking water wellhead areas. Some acres of land, particularly those near drinking water wellheads, have an outsized impact on water quality for nearby and downstream communities. These are the pieces of land that should be prioritized for improved practices like deep-rooted perennials planting or habitat restoration.
  • Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP): Both the House ($2 million) and the Senate ($15.5 million) propose funding for the Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) program for CREP. This is a highly effective program that pays agricultural landowners to permanently retire marginal farmland and convert it to conservation purposes. RIM/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.
  • Soil & Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs): Both the House ($12 million) and the Senate ($24 million) propose using the Clean Water Fund 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 oppose using dedicated funds to pay for activities that were formerly paid by non-dedicated sources of funds.

Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund

Minnesota’s Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund was established following voter approval of a constitutional amendment in 1988. The money in the fund is generated by the Minnesota State Lottery. It provides funding for projects across the state – including important FMR river restoration projects.  

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 remains unallocated. 

Bonding

Interestingly, the global agreement includes a conditional commitment to $100 million in housing infrastructure bonds, suggesting a bonding bill is also on the table for the special session.

This opens the door to funding two additional FMR legislative priorities this year: water infrastructure and CREP.

  • #FixthePipes: Much of Minnesota’s water infrastructure (water treatment systems, water pipes, wastewater plants, etc.) was built 50-60 years ago and is in dire need of replacement. A bonding bill is a perfect opportunity to build on last year’s efforts to #FixThePipes. FMR was proud to be part of the Fix the Pipes Alliance in 2020 to provide much-needed funding for community water infrastructure.
  • Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP): CREP has traditionally been funded through a state bonding bill. With the likely appearance of such a bill, the opportunity to fund CREP is back on the table. This is especially important to the fate of the Clean Water Fund bill, which might otherwise fall victim to a (constitutionally dubious) raid to fund CREP.

While there has been little action on a bonding bill this session, lawmakers in both chambers have joined the governor in expressing some support for a modest bill. We remain hopeful that the inclusion of housing infrastructure bonds in the larger budget agreement ushers in the opportunity to also provide bonding funds for CREP and water infrastructure.

Take action now

FMR River Guardian and all FMR members are still encouraged to contact their legislators to ask for important changes to the proposed Environment Omnibus Bill and Clean Water Fund (Legacy) bill.

Action Alert: Environment Bill - Support Conservation & the Environmental Trust Fund

Action Alert: Legacy Bill - Support Forever Green & oppose unconstitutional raids

In the near future, we’ll also have an Action Alert so you can reach lawmakers and urge them to include funding for #FixThePipes and CREP in an eventual bonding bill.

Join the River Guardians

We count on over 2,000 River Guardians to help us shape legislation to protect the Mississippi River. Before the upcoming special session, we hope you'll take a moment to become a River Guardian.

We'll let you know when important river issues arise and help you quickly and easily let your legislators know what you think. River Guardians 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.

 

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