Advocating to clean up and protect our lakes, rivers, and water resources
June 23, 2017
Minnesota legislators were unable to finish their session by the May 22nd deadline. The Governor and legislator leaders agreed to go directly into a special session that began at 12:01 on May 23rd. The special session went longer than the agreed upon timeframe and for a few days it seemed uncertain if the Governor would sign or veto several of the budget bills. In the end all of the relevant budget bills were signed by the Governor. Additionally, legislators were able to agree upon a bonding bill – something they were unable to do in last year’s session.
Many observers considered 2017 a year of legislative offenses to core conservation and clean water issues. Legislators proposed a number of rollbacks. Conservation Minnesota, along with others worked hard to defeat, change, and improve proposals that were out of line with Minnesotan’s values. Although much of our time was spent working against rollbacks, progress was still made. Here is a recap of the progress made to protect our lakes, rivers, and drinking water.
Environment Finance and Policy Omnibus Bill (SF844)
The first Environment Omnibus bill (HF 888) was passed in early May. The bill included significant funding cuts in the environment and natural resources budget category, despite the fact that the state had a $1.6 billion projected surplus. The bill also contained numerous policy provisions that would have seriously undermined environmental protections. The Governor vetoed the first Environment Omnibus bill on May 12.
The final environment bill (SF 844) was passed just before the end of the regular session.
Although the bill was improved in many ways, some negative provisions remained in the bill, including:
- Eliminating base administrative funding for soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs) and shifting those costs to Legacy Funds.
- Limiting citizens’ rights to ask for a contested case hearing on permits to mine. Under the new language, only citizens who own property “affected” by a proposed mine can request a hearing.
- Weakening protections of calcareous fens from impacts due to groundwater pumping.
However, the bill was improved to include several positive water provisions, including:
- Consistent funding for the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center (MAISRC).
- Some Fishing and Hunting Fee increases that were supported by the outdoors community.
- Allowing invasive carp to be tagged and tracked for research purposes.
Attempts to eliminate the Environmental Quality Board were re-buffed – the main change is that membership is expanded and must include representation from each congressional district.
LCCMR Bill (SF550)
The Legislative Citizen Council on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) allocates funding from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, generated through lottery proceeds. The original House bill had cut or reduced 21 LCCMR recommended projects. However, the final bill passed by the Legislature reduced or eliminated 11 projects recommended by the LCCMR and redirected the funds to provide an additional $13.5 million for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) which will help protect water quality. The final bill also included $2,700,000 for the MAISRC over the next four years.
The Governor signed the bill despite the cuts to LCCMR recommendations, but stated in his letter to the legislature that the bill: “…undermines the integrity of a process that includes citizens who volunteer hundreds of hours each year reviewing and recommending projects for the funding. It is very concerning to me that the projects deleted from the recommendations appear to be more focused on making a political statement on climate change, renewable energy, and equity, rather than reflecting a thoughtful reallocation of funds by the Legislature.”
A major focus of the legislative session included attempts to repeal or roll back the Governor’s stream buffer law, a signature water quality initiative of his administration. In the end, a few changes were enacted which:
- Keep the original deadlines intact – 11/1/17 for public waters and 11/1/18 for public drainage ditches but add language allowing for an eight-month extension for implementation if needed. The new language provides that “A landowner or authorized agent that has filed a parcel-specific riparian protection compliance plan with the soil and water conservation district by November 1, 2017, shall be granted a conditional compliance waiver until July 1, 2018.”
- Authorizes use of alternative practices so landowners and local governments can tailor site-specific options for water quality improvements comparable to the required buffer.
The tax bill provides county aid for buffer enforcement of $6 million in FY 2018 and $8 million per year thereafter. The Environment Omnibus bill provided a general fund appropriation of $2 million per year for buffer enforcement aid, giving local governments a total of $10 million per year beginning in FY 2019.
In addition, the Legacy bill included $5 million in clean water funds for buffer implementation, with half going to counties that do not receive CREP.
Bonding (HF5, 1st Special Session)
The final bonding bill totaled just over $1 billion dollars. Of this, $250 million (23.7%) was allocated to conservation and the environment. This is a strong outcome. Conservation Minnesota supported three priorities in the bonding bill:
- St. Louis River Clean Up – This funding, which leverages federal funds, was fully funded at $25.4 million in the bonding bill.
- Public Facilities Authority (PFA) Water Treatment Funding – The Governor proposed $167 million; the final bill provided $116.9 million.
- CREP – As noted, the bonding bill provided only $10 million for CREP, one-third of the Governor’s request.
Clean Water 25 by 25
Conservation Minnesota supported a bill to set a statewide goal of a 25% improvement in water quality by 2025. The bill was introduced in the Senate with bipartisan authors (SF 1417), and was included in the Senate version of the Environment Omnibus Bill. Unfortunately, the language was not included in the final Environment Omnibus Bill. However, the Governor has taken executive action to announce a “25 by 25” water quality goal and will hold a series of town hall meetings in the summer and fall of 2017 to develop strategies designed to achieve this goal.