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Solar for schools and 9 other state environmental budget items to watch

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Gov. Tim Walz budget includes some new environmental programs.
Tim Walz's budget proposal mostly maintains environmental programs, but there are some changes, such as a tax credit for farmers who install buffers along waterways and new spending on strategies to reduce food waste.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Gov. Tim Walz released hundreds of pages of budget documents on Tuesday, proposing to boost spending in education, transportation and health care.

But environmental advocates hoping to see big commitments to solutions on climate change and water quality say the new environmental efforts the governor is proposing are only modest changes. Overall, environmental spending accounts for about 0.7 percent of the state's general fund, though environmental programs also receive funds from several dedicated sources, such as lottery money and sales tax revenue from the Legacy Amendment.  

"In large part it's maintaining programs, it's maintaining efforts, it's making sure we're doing the things we're doing," Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said of the governor's budget proposal. "But that's not enough now. We need to look at, what are the big solutions for climate? What are the big things we need to do to protect our water into the future?"

Morse, whose group represents a coalition of environmental groups, said it's possible some of those challenges could be addressed through policy changes working their way through the Legislature. And he said advocates were relieved to see that the agencies overseeing environmental protection aren't seeing cuts.

Walz's budget right now is just a proposal — he will still need to work out a deal with the divided Legislature over the next few months ahead of the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. In addition, specific numbers within the budget could change after next week's state revenue forecast is released.

Here are 10 items worth watching in the Walz budget proposal that affect the environment:

1) Buffer tax credit for farmers

Walz is proposing to pay farmers required by law to plant buffer strips along waterways, often taking some of their land out of production, through a tax credit. Farmers would get $50 per acre, which would amount to about $15.8 million a year. His proposal will compete with others in the Legislature, one of which pays farmers based on the average farmland rental rate in the county. In some counties that could be much higher than $50 per acre. And then there's others who don't think farmers should be compensated for complying with environmental regulations, noting that farmers are already eligible for other types of payments, such as enrolling the buffered land in federal conservation programs.

2) Solar on schools program

A closeup of a completed solar panel.
Walz proposes to use $20 million over the next two years for grants to schools looking to install solar panels.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Walz proposes to use $20 million over the next two years for grants to schools looking to install solar panels on their rooftops or next to their buildings. According to the governor's budget documents, energy is the second highest operating budget expense for K-12 schools, and generating some of their own power would allow schools to spend more money on educating students. There's a similar proposal in the Legislature to help schools install solar, but there are a lot of details to be worked out with electric utilities, which so far have expressed skepticism.

3) Two big environmental studies on water

Nearly $4 million of the state's general fund next year would go toward two environmental impact statements under Walz's budget proposal. One would look at nitrate pollution in southeastern Minnesota, where the region's karst topography makes drinking water sources susceptible to contamination from fertilizer and livestock operations. The other would look at the impact of land being converted from forests to agriculture in the Pineland Sands region of central Minnesota, which covers parts of Wadena, Cass, Hubbard and Becker counties. The land conversions are having an impact on groundwater quality, which many residents rely on for drinking water.

4) Environmental litigation

The governor's budget sets aside about $6 million over the next two years to cover legal expenses the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are expected to incur related to various permitting decisions, including the PolyMet copper-nickel mine project that the state approved recently.

5) Climate change community engagement

The budget proposal includes $250,000 for community events across the state on how Minnesota should best address climate change and meet its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. So far, the state is not meeting its goals.

6) Drinking water testing

Keith Rapp has an elaborate filtering system to keep PFCs out of his water.
Under the budget proposal, the Safe Drinking Water fee would increase by $3.36 per household per year statewide to help support improved drinking water infrastructure, testing and other efforts led by the state Department of Health.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Under the budget proposal, the Safe Drinking Water fee would increase by $3.36 per household per year statewide to help support improved drinking water infrastructure, testing and other efforts led by the state Department of Health. The fee increase would bring in about $2 million a year.

7) Waste and recycling programs

Walz proposes to spend money on developing strategies for reducing food waste, increasing organics recycling and finding new local markets for recycling.

8) Levy authority for soil and water conservation districts

Walz's budget proposes to give Minnesota's 88 soil and water conservation districts authority to ask local voters to raise their property taxes to fund more water quality and soil conservation projects locally. According to the budget documents, this action could bring these local units of government charged with overseeing good land and water stewardship an estimated $26 million a year statewide.

9) Electric vehicle infrastructure

The budget proposal includes an additional $1.5 million a year to continue building out the state's electric vehicle charging network throughout the state. In the long-term, a $25 increase in the electric vehicle registration fee would pay for this. Some environmental advocates say an investment of $40 million is needed to ensure the state can electrify its transportation sector. Transportation and agriculture are the state's largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

10) Road salt solutions

A snow plow lays down road salt in downtown St. Paul, Minn.
The Walz budget includes $10 million over the next two years to reduce road salt use through alternatives or improved strategies.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Walz budget includes $10 million over the next two years to reduce road salt use through alternatives or improved strategies. Road salt washes into rivers and lakes and is a growing pollution problem, especially in the metro area. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is tasked with keeping roads safe in the winter, but the budget documents say a portion of those resources will go toward reducing salt use without compromising safety.