How our environment and the Mississippi River fared this legislative session

by Trevor Russell

This was an unusual legislative session, to say the least. Split governance, open animosity between Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP legislative leaders and the ill-fated fight of #OmnibusPrime led to a dramatic and ultimately unproductive year at our state Capitol. Let’s dive in! 

The ill-fated #OmnibusPrime

During the 2018 session, the Legislature packaged nearly all of its major bills into a single, massive omnibus bill dubbed #OmnibusPrime. This unusual (and questionably legal) strategy meant that virtually every policy and finance provision landed in a single bill, which was subsequently vetoed by Gov. Dayton due to his objections to its contents.

As a result, much of the legislature’s activity during the session was for naught. From an environmental perspective, however, this was ultimately for the best, as dozens of anti-environmental bills advanced during the session.

From attacks on drinking water protection and wild rice to rollbacks on community solar and pipeline regulation, most of the environmental bills that came forward this session put Minnesota’s natural resources in jeopardy.

While many of the most troubling provisions were eventually defeated, some standalone provisions were passed and signed into law, alongside an unprecedented $98 million raid of the state’s voter-approved Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Here’s how water quality and the Mississippi River fared this session.

Environmental funding

  • Bonding bill [PASSED]
    The 2018 bonding bill funding a variety of projects, including $125 million for water infrastructure. This figure was well short of the $167 million recommended by the governor, Legislative Water Commission and Public Facilities Authority.
  • Raiding the Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund [PASSED]
    The ENRTF uses state lottery money to fund environmental research and restoration. The bonding bill raids $98 million from the fund to pay for state debt service. This approach is plainly unconstitutional, violates multiple prior state statues and ignores clear voter intent while claiming $8 million per year from the fund through 2040.
  • Supplemental environment budget [VETOED]
    The Legislature’s environment finance and policy bill included little new money and lots of troubling policy items. It was packaged into #OmnibusPrime and fell to a veto from Gov. Dayton.
  • The Clean Water Fund [MIXED]
    • Restore the raid [SUCCESS]
      Efforts to secure the return of the $22 million raid of the Clean Water Funds from 2017 session were successful.  
    • 2018 appropriation [FAILED]
      Legislation to invest $25+ million in 2018 clean water money failed to materialize.

Drinking water protection

This session, five major bills were introduced that (for better or worse) addressed groundwater and drinking water-related topics.

  • Blocking the Groundwater Protection Rule [MIXED]
    A bill that blocked state rules to protect public and private wells was vetoed. The Legislature responded with an obscure parliamentary maneuver, potentially delaying the rules until summer 2019. 
  • Allowing unpermitted water transfers [VETOED]
    This bill would have allowed transfers between water bodies without a permit, risking the spread of pollution and aquatic invasive species.
  • Requiring the state to pay for private test wells [DEFEATED]
    This bill would have forced the state (and taxpayers) to pay for half the cost of test wells drilled to assess the impact of high-volume withdrawals if the well is found to be unsustainable — thus penalizing state agencies and taxpayers for protecting our waters.
  • Requiring residential well-testing at the time of sale [FAILED]
    A public health bill promoted by Gov. Dayton would have required that residential well test data be made available to buyers at the time of sale. This would let prospective buyers know if their well was safe and act accordingly.
  • Updating the Safe Drinking Water Fee [FAILED]: A fee increase of $3.36/yr per water connection was proposed to keep up with inflation in the costs of testing and protecting our drinking water but did not advance this session.

Environmental policy

  • Line 3 approval [VETOED]
    This bill would have granted immediate approval to Enbridge Energy to construct the Line 3 pipeline along the company’s preferred route with no further public input or approvals. 
  • The wild rice bill [VETOED TWICE]
    Legislation aimed at undermining the state’s protections for wild rice (our state grain) was defeated by gubernatorial veto in early May and again following the session.
  • Suspending White Bear Lake settlement [PASSED]
    This controversial legislation bars the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources from complying with a judge’s court-ordered conservation measures for White Bear Lake.
  • Wastewater treatment holiday bill [SPLIT DECISION]
    This bill aimed to give industry and municipal water treatment facilities 16 years to comply with any new water quality standards.
    • The industry holiday [VETOED]
      Included in #OmnibusPrime veto.
    • Municipal holiday [PASSED]
      Passed into law as standalone legislation.
  • Undermining peer review [VETOED]
    A bill aiming to allow conflicts of interest among agency science peer review members so long as they are disclosed was vetoed. 

  • Pre-empting local sustainability
    A pair of bills aimed to block local environmental laws:
    • Pre-empting local food container laws [DEFEATED]
      This bill aimed to block Minneapolis and St. Louis Park ordinances on food packaging.
    • The “No fees” bill [VETOED]
      This provision aimed to invalidate local fees on food packaging, including plastic bag fees. It was included in the final tax bill vetoed by the governor.
  • Undermining erosion control [VETOED]
    Language in the Ag Policy bill repealed the state’s authority to enforce the excessive soil loss (erosion) regulations but was vetoed by Gov. Dayton.
  • Chloride (salt) reduction bill [FAILED]
    A bill that would have provided liability protection for trained and certified winter snow and ice managers that reduce salt use did not advance.

Clean water crops

Efforts to improve water quality, habitat and farm prosperity failed, and legislation to fund key investments in clean water crops were not successful.

  • Forever Green [FAILED]
    No new money was directed to Forever Green, as the 2018 Clean Water Fund bill did not advance.
  • Working Lands Watershed Restoration Program [VETOED]
    An extension of existing funds for implementing this market-based conservation program was included in the doomed #OmnibusPrime bill.

River corridor investments

The bonding bill also included some vital investments along the Mississippi River including $15 million for site development at the Upper Harbor Terminal, $3 million for the Wakan Tipi Interpretive Center, $15 million for theFort Snelling Visitor Center, $1 million for repairs to the StoneArch Bridge and authorizing the Minnesota Housing Finance Authority to use its bonding authority to direct $15 million for affordable housing at Fort Snelling Upper Post.

Several key projects were left out, however, including funding for “The Falls” visitors center, the proposed environmental learning center at the current Watergate Marina site, and theGreat Northern Greenway River Link / 26th Avenue North Overlook & Pier in North Minneapolis.

Looking ahead

An election year looms in Minnesota, with the governor and all House members up for re-election, along with at least one special election in the Senate (which is currently tied 33-33) due to Sen. Fischbach’s transition to the lieutenant governor position.

Paired with an unusually high number of retirements, the 2019 legislative session will certainly have a different look and feel than 2018's.

One thing we do know for sure: strong and vocal public support for clean water is essential for protecting and enhancing the Mississippi River. From attendees of events like Water Action Day to our dedicated group of River Guardians, the health of the river depends on Minnesotans from all walks of life coming together to stand up for our environment.

Thank you to everyone who helped protect Minnesota’s great outdoors this session! We look forward to standing with you in the legislative sessions to come, and we invite you to visit our legislative updates page to learn more about how clean water and the environment fared this legislative session.