2016 Legislative Summary

Minnesota’s 2016 legislative session ended May 23, 2016, with a few new laws aimed at protecting our lakes and rivers, but the big remaining question is whether the Governor will call a special session to pass a bonding bill. The Governor’s proposed bonding bill would have had a significant impact on protecting clean water and cleaning up polluted lakes and rivers. On the final day of the regular legislative session both the Minnesota Senate and the Minnesota House of Representatives passed different versions of a bonding bill, and time ran out on the legislative session as the clock struck midnight.

As of June 9, 2016, a special session had not been called, but the Governor had expressed his willingness to call a special session if members of the Senate and House agree to conditions ahead of time. It is unclear if such an agreement in the House and Senate will be reached. If a special session is not called, hundreds of millions of dollars will be left on the table that could have gone towards providing safe drinking water, improving outdated wastewater treatment plants, and remediating years of pollution around Lake Superior. Furthermore, tens of millions in matching federal grants to help clean up Minnesota’s lakes and rivers are in jeopardy without a special session.

Also, the future of local government aid to implement the new buffer law is unclear. The House and Senate passed an omnibus tax bill that included $10 million to help counties and other local governments implement the buffer law. Because of a drafting error that would have cost the state over $100 million in expected revenue, the Governor left the omnibus tax bill unsigned and this acted as a de facto veto on June 7, 2016. The future of the buffer implementation aid contained within the tax bill is not clear, although if a special session is called the legislature could address any number of issues.

In the time we wait to see about the fate of a special session, we can review a few of the laws that did pass during the 2016 legislative session. Although overshadowed by the lack of a bonding bill, there were several new laws that passed aimed at protecting Minnesota’s lakes and rivers.

Stream Buffer Clarification Bill

In April, the Legislature passed SF2503 which clarifies the requirements of the new stream buffer law. The bill provides that:

  • the requirement for buffers on drainage ditches is on public drainage ditches only;
  • alternative water quality practices allowed in place of buffers include water retention ponds and other measures that prevent overland flow to a water resource; and
  • the buffer law does not affect eligibility to participate in federal or state conservation programs.
  • Clarifies various provisions regarding implementation and enforcement.

While conservation groups were disappointed that buffers will not be required on private drainage ditches, the overall bill was viewed as a satisfactory clarification of the new law.

Working Lands and Forever Green Funding

The supplemental budget passed by the Legislature (HF2749, Art. 2 and 3) includes funding for two programs that promote clean water by encouraging agricultural practices that reduce run-off:

  • $1 million in one time funds for the Forever Green program at the University of Minnesota to accelerate development of economically viable cover crops and perennial crops that enhance water quality, soil health and habitat while providing an economic return for producers. (SF579, Dahle, HF693, Bly).
  • $594,000 in one time funds for the Working Lands program administered by the Board of Water and Soil Resources which will provide incentives to landowners to grow perennial crops for use in biomass processing facilities and for livestock. The funding provides development of an in-depth feasibility study and detailed program plan to implement the program, including maximizing the use of federal funds. (SF2711, Schmit, HF2881, C. Johnson.)

Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS)

The supplemental budget includes $200,000 in one time funds for AIS prevention work on Lake Koronis in Stearns County, which is the first lake in the state to be infested by starry stonewort, a new invasive species that creates dense mats of a grass-like algae on the water’s surface.

The supplemental budget bill also included policy language that makes a technical correction to change the word “list” to “designate” in several locations in statute to ensure consistency with the language used in 84D with respect to the process used to classify invasive species. (HF2749, Art. 3, Sec. 7)

Legacy Amendment: Clean Water Fund

The Legacy bill (SF2527) cancelled some unused Clean Water Fund appropriations and re-allocated funds to the MPCA’s watershed assessment program and the MDA’s Agricultural Water Certification Program.

Bonding for Clean Water

The bonding bill (HF622), which failed in the final hours of session, would have included $156.2 million for clean water projects. Clean water projects included:

  • $133. 5 million for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure aid to local governments. This was less than the Governor’s request of $167 million for these grants and loans, but still a step forward in helping communities fix aging and outdated water treatment systems.
  • $12.705 million for cleaning up contaminated sites in the Louis River. These funds were needed to match an additional $23 million in federal funds for the clean up.
  • $10 million for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) which helps private land owners protect water quality and drinking water wellhead areas by putting marginal lands in conservation easements. These easements will help implement the new stream buffer law. The Governor had proposed $30 million. There is at least a 2:1 federal match, so failure to bond for CREP means the loss of significant federal funds.

The Governor has expressed disappointment that a final bonding bill was not passed. There is a diminishing possibility that he will call a special session to enact the bonding bill.

Buffer Implementation – County Aid

The tax bill passed by the Legislature (HF 848) but vetoed by the Governor included a provision for $10 million per year in special county aid for implementing and enforcing of the buffer law. Aid to each county area would have been based on:

  • the county’s share of the total number of agricultural acres in the state,
  • the county’s share of the number of miles of public water basins,
  • the county’s share of the number of centerline miles of public watercourses, and
  • the county’s share of the number of miles of public drainage ditches.

Aid to a county area shall not be greater than $200,000 or less than $45,000. Preliminary aid to each county area is split between the county government and watershed districts based upon the percentage of the county’s area that the county or the watershed districts have affirmed their jurisdiction under the buffer law. For areas of the county where neither the county nor the watershed district has affirmed its jurisdiction, the share of aid is given to the Board of Water and Soil Resources. The buffer aid payments would have started in 2017 had the Governor not vetoed the tax bill.

What’s Next?

Clean Water 2050

A bill supported by Conservation Minnesota setting statewide goals and deadlines for achieving clean drinking water by 2025 and clean lakes and rivers by 2050 was introduced in both bodies (SF3488, Dziedzic, Rest, Marty, Hoffman, Ruud; HF4012, Persell, Wagenius, Erhardt, Clark). This bill will be further developed in the 2017 Legislative Session.