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Governor, Legislature headed for collision over the environment

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Lake Vermilion State Park
The Legislature's budget bill for the environment would shift money initially designated to develop the new Vermilion State Park to the DNR's parks and trails division to avoid park closures.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

The first bill that DFL Governor Mark Dayton and the Republican Legislature agreed on was to streamline environmental review and permitting. Since then, they've been able to agree on little else. And now a whole host of measures affecting the environment are appearing in a budget bill, which the governor is expected to veto.

The Legislature's proposed environment budget would cut 66 percent from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's general fund budget. That amounts to a cut of the agency's total budget of about two percent, according Republican legislative leaders.

The MPCA says that cut would mean the loss of so many staff members it would be impossible to meet some of the short timelines required in the streamlining law signed early in the year by Dayton.

The chief author of the budget bill in the House, Rep. Denny McNamara (R-Hastings), doesn't buy that. He pointed out that most of the MPCA's budget comes from fees and not the general fund. He said it's time for the MPCA to focus on priorities.

"You have to look at what functions in your agency no longer are your needs, what don't you need to be doing, what we can do more efficiently, what can we do different or what we don't need to do at all. Permitting and applications are important, and we need them to be a priority."

The bill would also cut the Department of Natural Resources general fund by about 22 percent -- that's roughly 5 percent of the department's total budget. The other main environmental agency, the Board of Water and Soil Resources, also faces a general fund cut of 26 percent, or 5 percent of its overall budget. Environmentalists say these cuts are deeper than those proposed for the state's budget overall.

On everyone's mind are the millions of dollars generated by the Legacy amendment sales tax increase which voters approved two-and-a-half years ago.

Steve Morse, the executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of 80 groups, said the Legislature seems intent on using money raised by the amendment to substitute for general fund money. The amendment says Legacy dollars are supposed to supplement -- not substitute for -- existing dollars.

"They're zeroing out water programs, that are then being funded in the subsequent Legacy bill. What they're doing is taking away the traditional sources of revenue and then the Legacy bill will become a defacto substitution."

But Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, the Republican chair of the Senate Environment Committee said it's not fair to focus only on reductions in the DNR and MPCA's general fund when the state is facing such a big budget problem.

"And I'm not going to sit here and tell you it's not going down. We keep forgetting about the 5.2-billion-dollar gorilla that's in the room. It's there and we're charged with dealing with it."

Dayton has said he'll veto the environment budget bill, along with all the budget bills currently headed to his desk.

That's partly because it includes several policy measures. One of the most controversial was a change in the standard for sulfates in waters that support wild rice, from 10 parts-per-million to 50 parts-per-million. That language was removed in the conference committee. The bill also re-allocates money initially designated to develop the new Vermilion State Park, sending it instead to the DNR's parks and trails division to avoid park closures. Some policy measures remain in the bill. It exempts ethanol plant expansions from mandatory environmental assessment worksheet requirements, and eliminates the MPCA's rulemaking authority for the 72-mile metro section of the Mississippi River. It also boosts the number of people required to sign a petition requesting local governments to conduct environmental review on a proposed project, from 25 to 100. They must live in the county where the project is proposed, or in an adjacent county.

Republican leaders say if Dayton vetoes the budget bill they'll still try to enact the environmental policies in it. They include a measure to repeal restrictions on new coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, the measure that would allow new nuclear plants sits quietly in conference committee -- presumed dead until next session.