Politics and Government

Bishop resigns as pollution agency head prior to Senate vote

MPCA head had been assailed by Republican lawmakers for pushing new regulations

Updated: 4:44 p.m.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop resigned Tuesday rather than leave her fate with a Senate confirmation vote where Republicans were primed to push her out.

The sudden announcement came as the GOP-led Senate continued its overtime session for the sole purpose of reviewing Gov. Tim Walz appointees. Two other commissioners — Jennifer Ho at the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency and Sarah Strommen at the Department of Natural Resources — were deemed at risk. Two appointees won confirmation Tuesday on voice votes.

Bishop submitted her resignation just before a Senate committee wanted her to appear. 

In a resignation letter to Walz, Bishop said she was proud of her work to protect the state’s environment and resource quality. She said she was leaving with “gratitude and regret.”

“The MPCA Commissioner is a job that never wins a popularity contest, yet, in my view, is one of the most important roles in the Cabinet,” Bishop wrote to Walz. “For many, the agency can never go far enough in our protections, while at the same time, a segment of the Republican caucus will always believe the agency goes too far.”

Incoming Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner Laura Bishop
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop resigned Tuesday rather than leave her fate with a Senate confirmation vote where Republicans were primed to push her out.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News 2019

An #ImWithLaura social media campaign cropped up for allies to tout her work and press for her to remain on the job.

Walz said he was "extremely disappointed" that she was forced out. "Commissioner Bishop’s qualifications are clear, and her principles are unwavering. I am proud of her decision to stand firm in her beliefs that climate change is real and to not bend her policies and values in order to get through this disingenuous confirmation process,” Walz said. "For all Minnesotans who believe in science, who believe in climate change, this is a loss.”

Walz named MPCA Deputy Commissioner Peter Tester to temporarily fill the top role.

Republicans have been critical of her agency’s push to enact new vehicle emission standards, reduce chemicals in food packaging and enforce other air and water quality rules for agriculture and industry.

First proposed in September 2019, Minnesota’s “Clean Cars” plan was designed to help reduce the state’s tailpipe emissions and get the state back on track toward meeting its climate change goals. Bishop’s department took the lead in getting the framework approved.

A state administrative judge signed off on the new rules in May, which would implement stricter emissions standards on new cars and trucks sold in Minnesota than what is required by the federal government.

The new standards also require manufacturers to offer more electric cars and other zero-emission vehicles for sale in Minnesota. Between 6 and 8 percent of all vehicles sold in the state would have to be battery electric or plug-in hybrid models.

Republican lawmakers, especially from rural areas, have pushed back hard against the proposal. They’ve accused Bishop and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency of circumventing the state legislature and taking important policy decisions away from the legislative branch. 

The GOP legislators tried but failed to halt or further delay enactment of the rules as part of recent budget talks.

The special session that began in mid-June was supposed to be focused on setting a new state budget after lawmakers failed to enact one prior to the end of their regular session in May. Once the $52 billion plan was approved, the Democratic-led House left town but the Senate remained.

The only thing the Senate could do on its own is take confirmation votes on appointees.

Bishop is the third commissioner to leave under pressure. Last summer, the Senate voted to remove Steve Kelley as commissioner of Commerce and Nancy Leppink as commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry.

Walz recruited Bishop to run the MPCA after she had spent more than a decade at electronics retailer Best Buy, where she rose to chief corporate responsibility and sustainability officer. She had prior government service as an assistant commissioner for the Department of Administration during then-Gov. Jesse Ventura’s single term.

Democrats in the state Senate argued their Republican counterparts were abusing the confirmation process by holding onto the appointments to enact revenge. They said the commissioners most under fire had served more than two years without the Senate bringing them up for a vote; commissioners can serve in their posts unless a majority of that chamber votes to oust them.

Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, accused the GOP of lashing out at Walz agency bosses to get back at him for not giving in more in budget talks.

“You will make political theater to demonize some, to say that ‘We didn’t get what we wanted in a budget negotiation so now you are out of a job,’” Franzen said. “That is not our job, members. Our job is to find qualified people to serve in an honorable public service appointment.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, defended the decision to remain in session for the performance reviews and votes. He initially said last week the session would be extended only until Walz signed all remaining legislation, which the governor did by Thursday.

“During emergency powers and all of that it was just difficult to do anything as we managed through that,” Gazelka said. “Frankly, thank God we got done with the session before we went into shutdown. Everything is funded. I think everybody enjoyed the 4th of July and could relax a bit.”

He said the commissioner hearings are a proper exercise of the Senate’s oversight authority. He said more agency leaders could be scrutinized when the Legislature returns for an expected September special session when pandemic pay for frontline workers will be the main focus.

“In the end we have to decide, like an employer, is somebody doing their job or not doing their job. It’s not an enjoyable experience,” Gazelka said. “It is ‘Are they doing their job or not doing their job?’ And so we don’t take it lightly.” 

MPR News reporter Dan Kraker contributed to this story.

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