How water fared in the legislative session + a happy hour invitation

by Trevor Russell

After missing both its end-of-session and self-imposed special session deadlines, the Minnesota Legislature eventually wrapped up the 2017 session with Gov. Mark Dayton’s signing of the major policy and budget bills, including each of the bills addressing Minnesota's water resources.

The vast majority, 74%, of Minnesota voters say they're concerned about environmental rollbacks, and 62% think environmental laws should be made tougher.*  Unfortunately, legislators failed to make any meaningful progress on water quality in Minnesota and pushed through several policy rollbacks and funding shifts that will undermine water protection across the state.

However, thanks in part to strong public support for protecting bedrock environmental protections, several of the most damaging rollbacks were eventually removed in the final negotiations with Dayton's administration.

While the session didn’t go as well as we hoped, we can say for certain that the final bills were a great improvement over those originally vetoed by the governor. Thank you FMR River Guardians, Water Action Day participants and everyone who joined in our efforts to stand up for clean water this session!

A brief overview of the key bills signed into law is below. The FMR advocacy team is also looking forward to recapping the highlights and lowlights of the session and toasting our hardwon, essential accomplishments at the River Guardians Happy Hour on Tuesday, June 27, 4:30 p.m. Let us know if you can join us! (All are welcome, but please do RSVP so we know how much food to bring.)

Omnibus Environment & Natural Resources Finance (SF 844)

SF 844 includes a $7.9 million increase in general fund spending for environmental agencies, up from an original cut of $30 million. However, the bill simultaneously cuts $22 million in base program spending for local Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) operations. Legislators offset this by raiding $22 million from the Clean Water Fund (Legacy Amendment money) in violation of both the Legislature’s previous promise to taxpayers** and the clear constitutional prohibition on substituting Legacy funds for general fund sources.

The bill also includes rollbacks to environmental permitting, environmental review, rare wetland protections, lead shot rules and relaxed water quality standards for wastewater treatment systems.

This was a far-reaching bill and we recommend reading the full update, "Environmental bill becomes law:  What’s in & what’s out?" to better understand both the scope of what the Legislature sought and the impact of FMR River Guardians and other advocates.

Omnibus Legacy Finance (HF 707)

The Omnibus Legacy Bills (HF 707) bill appropriates funding from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment – including amendment money dedicated to the Clean Water Fund. Sadly, this bill raids $22 million in Clean Water Fund money for administrative costs for local Soil & Water Conservation Districts to backfill the funding cuts included in SF 844. The $22 million raid reduces or eliminates funding for a variety of programs that protect our drinking water an surface water across the state.

Luckily, legislators did include language in the final tax bill that promises to repay the $22 million should the state have a general fund surplus following a future budget forecast.

In addition, a “no net gain of public lands” provision failed in conference committee, thereby protecting state and local efforts to protect high quality natural resources.

Bonding Bill (HF 5)

A $988 million bonding bill includes funding for several FMR priorities. It provides $10 million for Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) Reserve conservation easements. RIM helps willing Minnesota farmland owners to conserve soil, eliminate erosion, protect habitat and improve water quality. It also helps cover the cost of installing and maintaining buffers where required under the buffer law passed in 2015 and amended in 2016.

In addition, the bill includes $116 million in clean water funding, including $40 million in wastewater infrastructure, $15 million in drinking water infrastructure, and $33.7 million for the Point Source Implementation Grant Program that helps fund local wastewater treatment plant upgrades. (The full rundown of appropriations is available here.)

Omnibus State Government Finance (SF 605)

This bill was passed after removal of deeply concerning language from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce that aimed to fundamentally change how all rulemaking, including environmental rulemaking, works in Minnesota. Thankfully, this language was defeated after the connection to the Chamber was made public and public pressure on the Chamber for the needless rollbacks included in the original bill. The governor also line-item vetoed House and Senate funding in this bill, a tactic from the Dayton administration to bring legislators back to the table to re-negotiate other concerning provisions. 

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* Statewide poll – conducted February 1-5th 2017 by the bi-partisan polling team of Public Option Strategies and Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates.

** Session Laws 2015, 1st Special Session, Chapter 4, Article 3, Section 4: "The base [general fund] for the board in fiscal year 2018 and thereafter is increased by $11,000,000 for grants to soil and water conservation districts to implement buffer requirements.”