How the Environment Bill fared this session

by Trevor Russell

After several weeks of negotiating and awaiting a final budget target, lawmakers in the House and Senate were able to agree on a compromise during the special session.

The Omnibus Environment & Natural Resources Policy & Finance Bill (SF 7) was approved by both the House (84-43) and Senate (61-5). Gov. Tim Walz is expected to sign the bill when it comes to his desk in the coming days.

Here’s a brief summary of how priority budget and policy items fared in the final bill.

Overall environmental budget

The Omnibus Environment & Natural Resources Policy & Finance Bill funds the work of key environment and conservation agencies for the 2020-21 biennium, including the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR).

The House initially sought $357.3 million over the biennium, a roughly $30 million increase over current spending. The Senate had originally proposed a massive rollback in environment budgeting, cutting it back to $268 million.

The compromise bill provides $339 million, a modest $14.78 million increase to the environment budget over the previous biennium. Most new funding is devoted to addressing Chronic Wasting Disease in deer herds, with inflation-adjusted increases for most other items.

The Environment Trust Fund

One of our biggest concerns about this bill was the Senate’s proposed raid of the state’s voter-approved Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund (lottery money for the environment).

You may recall that in 2018 lawmakers raided the fund, prompting a lawsuit by FMr and eight other organizations, and a subsequent legislative fix. Unfortunately, the Senate tried to raid the Trust Fund again.

Fortunately, it was dropped during final negotiations between the House, Senate and the governor. We're grateful that this issue does not need to return to the courts prior to the next session.

What’s in and what’s out?

Both the House and Senate proposed a variety of policy items and programs. 

We're glad these FMR-supported programs made it in: 

  • [IN] Lawns to Legumes: The final bill included the Lawns to Legumes program to help increase backyard forage for pollinators. The bill included $387,000 the first year and $250,000 the second year to provide grants for up to 75% of the cost of a project planting residential lawns with native vegetation and pollinator-friendly forbs and legumes. Residential areas that have a high potential for serving as habitat for the endangered rusty patched bumble bee may receive a grant for up to 90% of the cost of the project.
  • Plus several items not in the Environment Bill, such as funding for Forever Green, our top legislative priority. (This wrapup will soon be posted in the legi updates blog.)  

... But disappointed that these did not:

  • [OUT] Reinstating the MPCA Citizens' Board: The 40-year old Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board allowed for democratic participation in decisionmaking on the environmental issues facing our communities. Sadly, it was eliminated in controversial fashion in the final hours of the 2015 session. This year, the House sought to reinstate it (FMR letter of support), but the Senate did not and the board was dropped during final negotiations.
  • [OUT] Reducing salt pollution: This provision, which FMR has supported for several years, provided $466,000 to create a voluntary training program on best practices for deicing. Unfortunately, it was dropped from the final bill. However, some modest funding for salt pollution reduction was provided in the Clean Water Fund bill.
  • [OUT] Protecting Pollinators: This provision aimed to prohibit the use of neonicotinoid insecticides – harmful to pollinators, birds, and aquatic invertebrates – in Minnesota’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs). The House originally passed language making this language permanent, while the Senate unanimously approved a five-year ban. Sadly, the final bill did not include any language prohibiting neonicotinoid pesticides in WMAs.

We're glad these FMR-opposed items did not make the final cut:

  • [OUT] Giving veto power to any county board to prevent adopting a state water quality standard: This provision would have required all 87 county boards to approve a water quality standard before it can be enacted – regardless of scientific and technical evaluation by the MPCA. This clearly violated the basic tenants of science-based water quality standard development, and we are grateful for House efforts to block it in final negotiations. It was dropped in final negotiations.
  • [OUT] Redefining groundwater sustainability: This section aimed to redefine “sustainable” water use in contradiction to the definition recommended by the Department of Natural Resources experts. The proposed definition was a one-size-fits-all definition that did not take into account the variability of local conditions. It was dropped in final negotiations.
  • [OUT] Requiring legislative approval for fee increases: Fees are a necessary part of funding state permit programs. Requiring legislative approval could create additional delays in accessing funds to efficiently process permits. Fortunately, this provision was not included in the final bill.
  • [OUT] Preventing modification of groundwater permits during transfers: This section prevented the DNR from modifying permits as they are transferred with the sale of land to account for evolving groundwater sustainability issues. It was dropped in final negotiations.
  • [OUT] Agency "gag rule" for groundwater: This “gag rule” aimed to limit the ability of state agencies to talk about Groundwater Management Areas. Under this language, state agencies would be allowed only to share information about public hearings and respond to direct media inquiries. This vague and unnecessary provision was wisely dropped during final negotiations.
  • [OUT] 16-year industrial pollution holiday: This Senate provision aimed to give industrial polluters a blanket 16-year exemption from complying with any new water quality standards that may be developed if the industry previously invested in wastewater treatment upgrades. It was thankfully dropped during final negotiations.
  • [OUT] Wild Rice Stewardship Council: Minnesota currently has water quality standards to protect wild rice, Minnesota’s state grain. The makeup of the proposed Wild Rice Stewardship Council would have contradicted the Governor’s Wild Rice Task Force recommendations, and likely have further delayed enforcement of the standard and continue the harm to wild rice and its surrounding ecosystems. Fortunately, this provision was dropped during final negotiations.

But disappointed that these FMR-opposed policies and programs were ultimately included:

  • [IN] Allowing the transfer of water from one water body to another without a permit: This Senate provision allows for water to be transferred between water bodies without a permit. At a time when many water bodies are increasingly at risk for invasive species, this needless provision simply heightens the risk of transferring invasive species between waters. It was included in the final bill despite widespread opposition from the conservation community.
  • [MODIFIED] Restricting public participation in environmental review: This Senate proposal initially aimed to limit the public comment period on some environmental reviews to 30 days unless an extension is approved by project proposers. This provision was modified to allow the MPCA Commissioner to extend the 30-day public comment period by an additional 30 days but then requires any further extensions to have the permission of large-scale project proposers. While an improvement over the original proposal, this remains an unnecessary provision that undermines the public’s ability to learn about complex projects and make their voices heard in the decision-making process.

We made an impact. Thank you, River Guardians!

Overall, the session resulted in modest additional funding for some of our top priorities while many of the worst environmental provisions were dropped.

Along with our allies, we are deeply grateful to the FMR River Guardians who consistently demonstrated their strong support for the river and healthy lands and waters for all Minnesota communities.

Through action alerts, phone calls, legislator meetings and participation in our third annual Water Action Day, River Guardians came to the rescue many times this session. While we were certainly hoping for more from the legislature’s Omnibus Environment Bill, it certainly could have (and likely would have) been far worse without your support. Thank you!

What’s next?

We anticipate that Gov. Tim Walz will sign each of the major bills passed during the special session by the end of this week, Friday, May 31.

Looking ahead

Several important issues remain unresolved and will need to advance next session.

We need to invest in water infrastructure, fully fund Forever Green, initiate the Working Lands Drinking Water Protection Program, reinstate the MPCA Citizens' Board and fund the state’s proposed Smart Salt training and certification program.

We look forward to working with FMR members and advocates, as well as our conservation partners and state agencies, to advance these important initiatives during the 2020 legislative session.

Become a River Guardian

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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) where you can learn more about important legislative and metro river corridor issues.

 

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