Conservationists keeping an eye on the 2015 Minnesota Legislative Session witnessed an ugly series of train wrecks as environmental safeguard after environmental safeguard came under attack. This was particularly difficult for out-state conservationists, as they watched their elected officials make one bad policy move after another.
The session ended in chaos as leaders hurried to pass bills necessary to the functioning of the government with just minutes to spare (and no time for legislators to review and discuss, for example, a major budget bill). These were bills hammered out in conference committee, where conferees slipped in some controversial provisions that had not passed either chamber. As could be expected given these circumstances, final bills included a number of unfavorable provisions. In particular, the Agriculture-Environment Budget Bill, H.F. 846, hosted a number of dirty water provisions in addition to the final buffer compromise.
The final provisions require buffers on public waters and public ditches systems only, with compliance required by November of 2017 for public waters and November of 2018 for public ditches. Public waters must be protected by a buffer with an average width of 50 ft. and a minimum width of 30 ft., unless the state shoreland standards require a wider buffer, as is the case in agricultural land use areas, where a 50 ft. buffer is required. Ditches only need a 16.5 foot buffer.
Administrative penalty authority and the ability to levy a fine up to $500 has been granted to county or watershed districts, or the Board of Water and Soil Resources; meanwhile, funds can be withheld from a local water management authority or a soil and water conservation district that fails to implement the buffer law.
The Governor has made it clear that ensuring passage of this language is a priority.
This final buffer language is the result of a great deal of controversy and an arduous compromise process. The final provisions are weaker than we would have hoped, essentially requiring little more buffering than is currently required according to the DNR shoreland rules and state drainage law. However, the new language may set up structures that will better incentivize enforcement actions against noncompliant landowners. While this alone will not allow Minnesota to meet its water quality goals, it is a step in the right direction, and CURE continues to honor Governor Dayton’s leadership in revitalizing this conversation.
MPCA Citizens’ Board Eliminated
A particularly nasty surprise that came out of Conference Committee was a provision eliminating the Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board altogether. While legislation had been introduced that would have minimized the Board’s influence, neither the House nor the Senate had heard or passed legislation calling the for the Board’s elimination. This is a major concern, not only because of the undemocratic nature of the provision’s introduction, but also because the Citizens’ Board is a critical safeguard that allows a citizen perspective to weigh in on major projects with a potential to pollute the land, water, and air that citizens rely on, drink, and breathe.
Such an underhanded elimination of the Citizens’ Board is intolerable.
MPCA Water Quality Standards Scrutiny
The Pollution Control Agency uses peer reviewed science to establish safe thresholds for water quality standards, and enforces these standards to ensure that residents of Minnesota have a safe water supply. The budget bill included a provision that would require expensive cost analyses of implementing new water quality standards, effectively hampering the Pollution Control Agency’s ability to do its job. These cost analyses would not take into consideration the economic and social costs associated with declines in water quality.
The bill establishes an incentive for plants that manufacture cellulosic biofuel, which can be synthesized from perennial feedstocks such as switchgrass or alfalfa, or annual feedstocks such as corn stover. While our partners worked very hard on ensuring that this initiative would include provisions that supported perennial over annual feedstocks, in the final hours, this compromise was broken and we are left with a bill that will provide even more incentives for corn.
Pollinator Protections Rolled Back
While in 2014, the legislature passed a number of pollinator-friendly policies, 2015 saw a backslide. Notably, nurseries are now allowed to sell plants labeled as “pollinator-friendly” as long as the insecticide level of the plant is not so high that it kills a pollinating insect on contact. Plants treated with systemic neonicotinoid insecticides could legally be sold as “pollinator-friendly.”
For a thorough list of concerns compiled by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, see this document.
So We Rallied
The Ag-Environment Budget Bill was clearly a bad bill, with a number of provisions stuck in because polluters thought that the Governor would not veto a bill that included his buffer initiative. However, we did not want to see the dirty water and pollinator-lethal provisions passed into law, so CURE joined our partners in a crowd of more than 100 people that met outside the Governor’s Residence on Thursday. We wanted to thank the Governor for all the support he has already given to clean water and conservation initiatives this session, and to encourage him to stand strong and veto the ag-environment budget bill that had been put on his desk.
We were thrilled when the Governor himself came out to welcome us onto the lawn, bearing cookies for the children that had come with their parents that day. In his address to the crowd he explained that he would consider vetoing the bill, but that he needed us to name our priorities, which we have done above. The buzz about the event continued for hours afterwards as pictures spread through social media and major news sources reported on the gathering.
And He Vetoed
On Saturday, the news came that Governor Dayton had vetoed the bad ag-environment bill, and in his letter to Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, he outlined a number of his concerns, including the restrictions on the Pollution Control Agency.
This veto (along with two others) means that the Governor will have to call a special session so that legislators can approve workable budget bills. If St. Paul leaders do not work out a compromise by July 1st, we will enter into a partial government shutdown, as agencies funded according to these budget bills lose their stream of income.
However, this leadership shows a certain mettle on the Governor’s part, because the assumption seemed to be that he would be willing to swallow some nasty pills if they were sweetened by the buffer deal. The fact that the Governor is not willing to trade one okay clean water policy for a whole slew of bad pollution policies indicates that he will continue to be a reliable champion throughout this year’s special session and into the remaining years of his term.
So Our Work Goes On
In April, CURE acknowledged Governor Dayton for bringing environmental concerns back to the front of state politics by presenting him with our Gary Kubly Good Government Award, and we continue to stand by that decision. In the remaining several weeks before the end of the special session, it will be our job to continue expressing support for the Governor’s priorities and continue reminding our legislators that clean air, water, and land is a priority for CURE and our members. We look forward to this work!
Blog post by Ariel Herrod, CURE’s Water Program Coordinator. Photos by Sarina Otaibi.