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So who owns Minnesota, post-Citizens United? Equally urgent, who owns the water?

This coming legislative session may be the last opportunity to protect our very limited supply of healthy water. Prudence screams for a comprehensive water study by a credible entity such as the University of Minnesota.

How many times have we heard candidates for public office boldly and piously declare that they do not accept campaign contributions from special interests? Well, you can rest assured that Burger King is not the only one peddling “whoppers.” The simple fact is that our campaign disclosure system does everything but disclose the actual source of campaign contributions and the monied interests thrive on this.

The Supreme Court decision in 2010 known as Citizens United opened the floodgates to campaign funding by corporate interests. Colorado and New Jersey took action by passing legislation requiring that campaign donations be traced back to their original source. And Connecticut instituted a very robust public funding system that offsets and minimizes the power of corporate interests.

However, Minnesota not only shied away from reform but actively welcomed this infusion of wealth. In a study prepared by the undersigned, we noted that the legislative caucus organizations of both political parties raised over $26 million for their 2020 legislative races. That comes to an astounding $130,000 per legislator. We can safely assume that this generosity did not come from $5 bean feeds or neighborhood coffee parties.

Many Minnesotans may not be familiar with legislative caucuses. What occurs is that following an election, members join their party’s grouping in the Legislature known as a caucus. Originally, the expectation was that individual members would join the “caucus” only for organizational purposes (election of its leaders) and then act as independent agents fully representing their district.

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However, with the Supreme Court decision and the floodgates open to “big money,” caucuses soon realized that caucus discipline was imperative, thereby limiting district representation. This past May, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota issued a report outlining the influence large contributors were granted by legislators and all caucuses. Specifically, the authors, Prof. Larry Jacobs and Associate Prof. Kathryn Pearson, followed legislation through the committee process and concluded that monied interests were given the opportunity to “shape” legislation. This is popularly known as “Pay to Play” and the loser is the public.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Former Gov. Arne Carlson
The overall result is that caucus power is concentrated in its leaders and their control over legislation is dominant. Now, we have never heard a single candidate for public office ever declare to the public that they would, when elected, give their vote to the caucus. But that is exactly what they do.

Nor are we aware of any candidate publicly declaring a willingness to give special favors and special influence to monied interests. But that is precisely what they do.

For three years, we have been petitioning the Legislature and the governor for a hearing on legislation that would protect Lake Superior, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and all nearby waters from copper nickel mining which discharges highly toxic waste including arsenic and mercury into our waters. Yet neither the Republican Senate nor the DFL House would grant a hearing, nor were they even willing to consider a study of our drinking water in order to meet future needs. In addition, all requests for information were ignored by the legislative leaders and the governor.

Tom Berkelman
Tom Berkelman
While monied interests were welcomed in to tailor legislation to meet their needs, the public’s interest in protecting its clean water was totally locked out. This is the power of money.

But there is even a bigger problem and that is that the world is already suffering a shortage of healthy drinking water. The United Nations and other international organizations have conducted studies and concluded that water scarcity is here now and growing. The Pew Institute, for instance, states that over 2 billion people are currently in “water stressed” areas and that by 2025 over half of the world will be in that dire situation. Currently, 2,300 people die daily due to a lack of healthy drinking water.

Chris Knopf
Chris Knopf
And, here in Minnesota, our supply is dwindling. In November 2019, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency declared that 56% of Minnesota’s lakes and streams were “impaired,” meaning not safe for fishing or drinking. Further, another 305 lakes and streams were added this year, including some popular ones in the Twin Cities.

In essence, our supply of healthy drinking water is in serious jeopardy and the governor and Legislature remain intent on turning over Lake Superior and the BWCA to two of the world’s most corrupt companies, Glencore and Antofagasta. Fortunately, the Biden administration stepped in, thereby protecting the BWCA. However, the waters of Lake Superior remain seriously threatened and those waters comprise 10% of the world’s supply of fresh surface water. It will be vital to the growing needs of Minnesota and the upper Midwest.

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Gov. Tim Walz and other leaders have insisted that the state’s mining permitting process is thorough and vigorous and, therefore, will adequately protect those waters. The fact is that our mining laws are antiquated and afford little protection. Here is what the former commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, Tom Landwehr, stated about the permitting process in a May 2019 interview with MinnPost:

It doesn’t look at economics, it doesn’t look at cultural, it doesn’t look at quality of life. It’s a very narrow prescriptive. It doesn’t look at health.

Another key warning came from former Vice President Walter Mondale, long active in legislation dealing with the BWCA and the St. Croix River, in a 2017 report:

Above all else, we have learned that sulfide-ore mining has never — never — been undertaken without serious environmental consequences…. Sulfide-ore mining is dangerous everywhere and most dangerous in wet environments. They [contaminants] will surely outlive all of us and will just as surely outlive the mining company’s pledges, promises and sureties.

Yet Walz and legislative leaders turned away all concerns raised by the Minnesota health community including the Mayo Clinic, ignored all questions as to why Glencore was not a signer on the permit thereby avoiding all liability and stonewalled all inquiries relative to Glencore’s international violations of law including child labor, price fixing and breaches of contracts. In addition, Glencore remains under investigation for bribery of public officials in the U.S., Great Britain, and Brazil.

This coming legislative session may be the last opportunity to protect our very limited supply of healthy water. Prudence screams for a comprehensive water study by a credible entity such as the University of Minnesota. And this action should be accompanied by a moratorium on all projects that threaten our waters, including a newly announced endeavor owned by Tau Capital Corp. and located northeast of the Brainerd Lakes area.

Of equal importance is the compelling need to ban legislative caucus fundraising. It constitutes a fundamental conflict of interest in that one cannot serve two masters simultaneously.

We must restore Minnesota’s expectation of honest and competent governance.

Arne H. Carlson, Lake City, is a retired governor of Minnesota. Chris Knopf, North Oaks, is executive director of Friends of the Boundary Waters. Tom Berkelman, Plymouth is a retired DFL state representative. This piece was also signed by Duke Skorich, Duluth, president of Zenith Research Group, and Janet Entzel, St. Louis Park, retired DFL state representative.