As the session draws to a close, major environmental bills remain in limbo

by Trevor Russell

With less than two weeks remaining in the 2019 legislative session, major environmental funding and policy issues remain in limbo at the Capitol.

Here’s a brief overview of where things stand and what's at stake as the session comes to a close. 

It's all about the omnibus bills

So far this session, the Legislature has passed very few stand-alone proposals, such as the important move earlier this session to restore the Environmental Trust Fund.

For the most part, both House and Senate committees have combined individual budget and policy proposals into large “omnibus bills”. These large combo bills have passed through their respective committees and have been approved by the full House and Senate.

Since the House and Senate versions of each omnibus bill are different, bipartisan conference committees have been formed to negotiate the final versions.

However, a major hurdle remains before conference committees can act.

A budget impasse

Despite improved relationships this year, the House, Senate and governor’s office remain far apart on overall budget negotiations. Huge differences remain on three main topics:

  • Education: House and Senate spending goals differ by roughly $700 million.  
  • Health Care: House and Senate differ on whether to extend an existing 2% medical provider tax in the Health & Human Services Omnibus bill.
  • Transportation: Gov. Tim Walz and the House support an increase in the state’s gas tax to fund transportation infrastructure. The Senate does not.

As a result, legislators missed their previously established May 6th deadline for reaching a broad agreement of budget.

Final decisions on these major issues will have a spillover effect on virtually every omnibus budget and policy bill this session, including the Environment, Agriculture, Legacy and Health & Human Services bills – each of which includes provisions that FMR is watching closely.

Here’s a quick summary of the important issues in each of these omnibus bills.

What we're watching in the ag finance bill

Both the House and Senate versions of the omnibus agriculture bill secure modest funding for a few important programs, including the Farm to School program that reimburses schools and early care centers for purchasing locally farmed foods.

However, FMR is deeply concerned about two positions in the bill as it stands:

  • Forever Green: Neither the House nor Senate versions fund one of FMR’s top priorities this session: Forever Green. Stable, general-fund money through the state’s agriculture budget (not the Clean Water Fund) is the most appropriate source of investment for crop system research in Minnesota. (Read more about clean-water crops from FMR or the University of Minnesota Forever Green website.)
  • Feedlot loophole: The Senate version aims to skirt environmental regulations by expanding the definition of pasture to include some feedlot lands traditionally regulated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.  

While securing Forever Green funding in the final agricultural omnibus bill is highly unlikely, we remain hopeful that the conference committee will exclude controversial feedlot language from an otherwise non-controversial bill.

What we're watching in the environment bill

The House and Senate environment and natural resources bills could not be more different.

The House version, which FMR supports, includes a handful of modest policy changes and environmental investments. It seeks to:
• Establish a salt pollution reduction program,
• Reinstate the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board,
• Reduce insecticide use in Wildlife Management Areas to protect pollinator health, and
• Provide funding for pollinator-friendly lawn grants.

Unfortunately, the Senate version includes many disconcerting policy and finance rollbacks. It aims to:
• Severely cut general fund support for our core environmental agencies,
• Raid the Environmental Trust Fund (again), and
• Roll back many important policies.

We're hopeful that the conference committee will remove most of the Senate's rollbacks and pass a final version that reflects Minnesota’s longstanding support for strong investments in our environment and natural resources.

What we're watching in the Clean Water Fund / Legacy bill

In 2008, Minnesota voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to our state constitution, providing a 3/8th of 1 percent sales tax increase dedicated to water quality, land conservation, parks and trails and the arts. The Clean Water Fund receives 33% of all receipts, and funds work to protect and restore our state's waters. 

Both the House and Senate legacy bills include Clean Water Fund appropriations, but have major differences between them, with implications for three important state environmental initiatives:

  • Forever Green: The Forever Green program develops crops that protect land and water while maintaining farm profitability. (This is our top legislative priority to protect the long-term health of the Mississippi River.)
  • Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program: This program, traditionally funded with state bonds, provides permanent protection for high-value conservation lands in agricultural portions of the state.
  • Soil & Water Conservation Districts: Typically funded with state general funds, SWCDs provide much-needed local assistance to landowners on important land and water issues.

Read more about the trade-offs in play in the Legacy bills on FMR’s legislative blog.

What we're watching in health & human services

Fortunately, both the House and Senate increase the Safe Drinking Water Fee from $6.36 to $9.72 per connection. The current fee was set in 2005 and inflation has increased 28% since. This important funding source allows the Minnesota Department of Health to test drinking water, train and certify water system operators, inspect water systems and solve critical drinking water problems. However, given the current impasse on whether or not to extend the 2% medical provider tax, the prognosis for the remainder of the bill remains uncertain.

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We count on over 2,000 River Guardians to help us shape legislation to protect the Mississippi River. Sign up 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.

 

More legislative updates.