Senate proposes major environmental rollback

by Trevor Russell

The Minnesota Senate Environment & Natural Resource’s Finance Division has passed their proposed Omnibus Environment and Natural Resources Policy & Finance Bill (SF 2314).

Ready to act? Sign our action alert by midnight on Tuesday, April 23, 2019.

The lengthy bill includes some policy and funding items that FMR strongly supports. Unfortunately, elsewhere in the legislation, the Senate makes severe cuts to general fund support for our core environmental agencies, raids the Environmental Trust Fund (again) and proposes some very concerning policy provisions.

Here’s what the bill includes — and what it could mean for Minnesota.  

Environmental Spending

SF 2314 cuts general fund spending on the environment and natural resources by $89.6 million compared to the last biennium — roughly a 25% cut to overall environmental spending. This represents an enormous rollback in state general funding support for our environment and natural resources.

Most of the cuts are focused on Minnesota's three front-line environmental agencies:

  • The Department of Natural Resources (17% cut): This $38.7 million funding cut would result in closing camping and other park services in at least 30-34 state parks, and all campgrounds would be closed from Labor Day to Memorial Day. Funding for invasive species inspections, Scientific & Natural Areas (SNAs) and enforcement would also be reduced. 
  • The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (86% cut): $12.5 million in cuts would result in the elimination of recycling and composting grants, watershed monitoring, railroad emergency preparedness, permitting improvements and support for the St. Louis River/Duluth Harbor cleanup (potentially sacrificing millions in federal matching dollars). Funding for electric vehicle infrastructure, contaminated site cleanup and closed landfill cleanup is also absent from the bill.
  • The Board of Water and Soil Resources (39% cut): This $12.5 million cut will reduce on-the-ground watershed restoration projects throughout the state, including reductions in funding for wetlands conservation, invasive weed control, erosion control and support for local implementation. This cut follows other recent cuts, resulting in a $24 million overall reduction in general fund support for BWSR in just the last three years. 

In a time of a modest state budget surplus, FMR is deeply disappointed to see the Senate propose substantial cuts to core environmental programming. Unfortunately, the bill doesn't stop there. The bill also includes a renewed raid on dedicated funding and a number of concerning policy provisions. 

Raiding the Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund (Again)

You may recall that in 2018 lawmakers raided the state’s voter-approved Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF).

In response to the raid, FMR joined eight other conservation organizations in initiating a lawsuit against the state, resulting in a fix to the raid earlier this legislative session.

Unfortunately, SF 2314 raids the ENRTF all over again, in clear violation of Minnesota's constitution:

  • Violation #1 (Grants vs. loans): Subdivision 11(a) allocates $9.34 million in ENRTF funds for “…grants for wastewater treatment projects under the water infrastructure funding program.” This appropriation violates the constitution by appropriating funding via grants rather than loans.
  • Violation #2 (substitution): Subdivision 9(l) allocates $10 million for “state park and recreation area operations and improvements”. This violates the constitution because the authorizing statute (Minn. Stat. § 116P.03) declares that the state “may not be used as a substitute for traditional sources of funding environmental and natural resources activities…”. State park and recreation area operations and improvements have historically been funded through traditional means, making this a clear case of substitution.

Top 10 dirty water provisions of concern

SF 2314 includes hundreds of policy provisions, some of which are bipartisan reforms that FMR strongly supports. However, a number of policy items undermine longstanding protections for our environment. Our list of the “top 10” dirty-water provisions in the bill include the following:  

  1. Single-county veto of any new water quality standard (Section 110): This section requires the state to get a new “social permit” approved by all 87 county boards in Minnesota before any water quality standard can be strengthened — a nearly impossible task that would effectively block any improvements to state water standards. Curiously, the same approval would not be needed to weaken existing standards. County boards should not have de facto veto authority over science-based water quality standards. 
  2. Limiting public comment on environmental review (Section 127): This section would limit the public comment period on environmental assessment worksheets (EAWs) to 30 days unless an extension is approved by project proposers. While extensions of comment periods are infrequent, this would remove the authority of the state to extend a public comment period when it is in the best interest of the public. Local communities should be given enough time to learn about and comment on complicated EAWs that can be hundreds or thousands of pages long.
  3. 16-year “pollution holiday” for industrial polluters (Section 111): This section gives industrial polluters a 16-year exemption from complying with any new or upgraded water quality standards following the construction of a new facility. This language violates the federal Clean Water Act and could result in significant regulatory uncertainty resulting from likely legal challenges.
  4. Groundwater management “gag rule” (Section 83): This unusual provision would bar the state from sharing information about the development of Groundwater Management Plans. While agency staff could share some information on public meetings (time, location and agenda), the bill would “...limit public information disseminated related to the groundwater management area…” to only direct responses to inquiries. This vague and unnecessary gag rule prevents exactly the kind of information sharing that is essential to securing the full participation of the communities and stakeholders in managing our water resources and undermines public trust in our agencies. 
  5. Redefining groundwater sustainability (Section 84): This section redefines “sustainable” water use in contradiction to the definition recommended by Department of Natural Resources experts. It also is a one-size-fits-all definition that does not take into account the variability of local conditions.
  6. Legislative approval of agency permit fees (Section 122): This section would require additional approval of adjustments to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency permit fees. These fees are established to cover the reasonable costs of reviewing applications and issuing certifications. Since costs can change, the fees may need adjustment over time. Legislative delays or denials of fee changes would pose unfair costs to those involved.
  7. Permit-less water transfers (Section 107): This section allows water transfer from polluted water bodies to cleaner ones without a permit. Water transfers risk moving pollution and aquatic invasive species from one body of water to another, which is why permits may be needed to begin with. Minnesota should ensure that permit requirements remain an option in cases where water transfers could threaten water quality.
  8. The “Milliliters & Milligrams” provision (Section 121): This bizarre provision requires that the state express all water quality standards (along with standards for solid waste, air quality and hazardous waste) in milliliters (for liquids) or milligrams (for solids). This would not only create confusion between federal standards, state standards and scientific researchers — but it would also be impossible for some water quality standards (like pH) that can’t be expressed this way.
  9. Prohibiting agency guidance (Section 123): The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency uses guidance documents to assist businesses with understanding and complying with at times complex permits and regulations. This provision would restrict the agencies’ ability to provide clarifying guidance on state or federal law. At a time when the agency has committed to making its permit process more efficient, provisions like this undermine those efforts and compromise trust in the agency. 
  10. Limiting tribal roles in a Wild Rice Stewardship Council (Sections 15 and 153): Wild rice, Minnesota’s state grain, is especially important to the economic, physical and spiritual health of our indigenous communities. Under these provisions, the state would prematurely establish a Wild Rice Stewardship Council, without full consultation and approval of our 11 federally recognized Minnesota tribes. The language also limits all but three tribal representatives in such a task force, in direct contradiction to the recommendations of the Governor’s Wild Rice Task Force.

Farewell to the MPCA’s Assistant Commissioner for Climate Policy?

Earlier this year, the agency made headlines by appointing an Assistant Commissioner for Air and Climate Policy. This new position, the fourth assistant commissioner position at the agency, will help advance important climate change work. Language in SF 2314 would effectively reverse this decision by limiting the agency to just three assistant commissioners.

Next Steps

The Senate must pass a final Environment Finance Bill off the Senate floor first by May 1. FMR and our allies are working hard to make sure that senators vote out these policy and finance rollbacks before full passage of the bill in the Senate.

The House’s environmental budget bill (HF 2209) must also pass muster in that chamber by May 1. The House bill takes an entirely different direction — proposing a $79.8 million increase in environmental spending.

Once passed, these two very different bills will go to a “conference committee” where members from the House and Senate will have to reconcile their differences and present a compromise bill to both chambers by May 13. From there, the full House and Senate must both pass the final package by the end of the regular session (May 20) and send the agreed-upon language to Governor Walz for his signature or veto.

If either chamber fails to pass the bill as recommended before the session concludes, the governor can call a special session to allow for more time for both sides to agree to terms. If the budget remains deadlocked through June 30, the state could face a partial government shutdown when the state’s new fiscal year begins on July 1.  

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