Cuts and compromise on environmental bill

Special session
Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch speaks with a colleague during a special session at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on July 19, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The environment bill negotiated between Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers includes some budget cuts and some compromise on policy issues.

The Chamber of Commerce is satisfied with the changes, but environmental groups say the law weakens protections of natural resources and goes against voters' wishes for Legacy Amendment money.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's general fund is cut by 40 percent over the biennium. That's a smaller cut than the 66 percent that Republican legislators had initially proposed. Still, it prompts environmental leaders like Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership to charge negotiators with stepping over the constitutional line against substituting Legacy Amendment money for existing expenditures.

"When overall state funding is going up, the environment is getting cut, and that's contrary to what voters directed legislators to do just two and a half years ago with the Legacy Amendment," Morse said.

The general fund is a very small part of the MPCA's budget. The agency gets most of its money through permit fees and other income. Republicans point out the overall MPCA budget will rise by 1.5 percent. The chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, Republican Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria, said the budget agreement doesn't include any improper substitutions, although Ingebrigtsen said some legislators would like to use Legacy money to plug budget holes.

"They would like to see that amendment fund some of these budgets but we cannot get into that; it just violates the Constitution," Ingebrigtsen said. The DNR's general fund is cut by 11 percent; the Board of Water and Soil Resources, which helps farmers reduce erosion and pollution, is cut 10 percent. The Minnesota Conservation Corps, which works in state parks and other public lands, is cut by nearly one-third.

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One DNR program that benefits from the budget agreement is forestry, which oversees public timber lands that private companies use for logging.

Tony Kwilas, environmental policy director for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said his organization is happy about new money there.

"I think it will allow some more of the foresters up north to get out and be able to do some more surveying of the land up north, and allow more land to be sold at auction so the timber producers can get in there, and that actually generates revenue for the state," Kwilas said.

The final bill also provides nearly $4 million over the next two years to study the effects of sulfate pollution on wild rice beds. The issue is controversial because taconite mines in northeastern Minnesota are having difficulty meeting the current state standard.

The study will likely take at least two years to complete. During the study the MPCA will not be allowed to require any company to invest in expensive control equipment unless federal law requires it.

That deference to federal requirements is a sore spot for environmentalists. It crops up again in another provision that tells the MPCA it must only issue specific permits for feedlots "as required by federal law."

Morse says that stipulation ignores how highly Minnesotans value their clean water.

"Since when do we in Minnesota only do the same water protections as they do in Nebraska or Mississippi?" Morse said. "They're saying, 'If the feds require it we'll do it, otherwise, don't.'"

But environmental groups won on some issues. A moratorium on new rules on water quality was turned into a study of the issue. And the government can still study whether perfluorochemical pollution harms people.