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One-party rule doesn’t guarantee unity on issues of environment and energy

Some energy issues – expanding public transit, for example – can be steered clear of gridlock more readily than, say, sulfide mining, with its northern/southern split. 

“It’s going to be a difficult session, no question, with maybe 60 or 70 of the oxygen in the room taken up by the budget — very serious economic and structural problems.”
MinnPost photo by James Nord

First of two parts

“The last two years have been the longest six years of my life in politics.”

– Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, on returning to the majority.

For historical perspective on Minnesota’s environmental politics and the various divides within – partisan, geographic, economic, the list goes on – you could do worse than consult with Steve Morse and John Tuma.

John Tuma
John Tuma

In the last legislative session where Democrats controlled both houses and also held the governorship, as they will again this January, Morse was finishing his first Senate term as a DFLer from the Winona area. It was the 1989-1990 biennium and such fixtures of the contemporary scene as the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, the legislative coordinating council he now heads, weren’t yet invented.

Three sessions later, for the 1995-1996 biennium,Tuma joined the Legislature as a Republican member of the House from Northfield. Remarkably, in hindsight from these more rigid, immoderate times, having lost a bid for the Democrats’ nomination two years earlier didn’t disqualify him from winning both the Republican nomination and then the seat itself in 1994.

Today he lobbies for Conservation Minnesota, known back then as the state chapter of the League of Conservation Voters (and, incidentally, writes quite engagingly about Minnesota political history on his blog).

Optimistic despite obtacles

Although their organizations’ agendas for the next session are still taking shape, both men say they are looking ahead with optimism for moving Minnesota forward in such areas as water quality, clean energy, expanded transit and recycling.

Neither will miss the partisan rancor of the last session. And while bringing the new majorities  together on a common agenda is no cinch, both agree it will be easier than bridging a Democrat/Republican gulf that the parties found useful to maintain. “Oh, absolutely,” said Morse:

For the last two years, we’ve just been playing defense. Now there’s a lot more hope about advancing clean energy – more solar, in particular, and more incentives for wind power and efficiency. Water quality, that’s a little tougher, some entrenched [agriculture] interests there. But we’re hopeful about bonding, making some important investments.

For Tuma, the “new norm” in electoral politics is “big swings in the elected’s philosophies, with whoever’s in power overplaying and getting kicked out.”

That’s what’s just happened, and it means we’ll have to put together some coalitions, like we always do – and maybe bring some moderate Republicans along with us. But for most of the last two years, there wasn’t any point in raising any issues with the electorate because we couldn’t raise it above the marriage amendment – we’d just be drowned out. No more.

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Because of their deep experience, and because I’ve known them for a while (see personal disclosures, below) I want to hope these guys are justified in their outlook for the next two years.

But I also have to say that other environmental advocates were less hopeful, and also less willing to speak on the record, about the prospects for business they want to bring before the Legislature.

Moreover, the overall mood grew darker toward the end of last week, after announcement of House chairmanship assignments that completed the DFL’s leadership roster for the upcoming session.

How the new leaders voted

To get a better grip on those assignments, and their likely import, I spent some time with the Sierra Club/Northstar Chapter’s legislative scorecard for last session. It’s a familiar kind of analysis, drawing on selected votes to calculate a percentage score reflecting each lawmaker’s agreement or disagreement with the club’s positions.

Some might disagree with the votes selected, or with the club’s preferences  – or with the whole approach, for that matter – but one can refrain from judgment on those objections and still take the results as an outline of DFL diversity on policy questions around such subjects as clean energy, sulfide mining, water and air pollution, and “streamlining” of environmental review.

One can also draw a bright partisan boundary through the lists: With very few exceptions, the highest-rated Republicans rank below the lowest-rated Democrats. The range of scores for the Democrats is much wider. And, most important for assessing the future, some of the next session’s committee chairs compiled rankings that would fit about as well in the Republican caucus as in their own.

Take Tom Bakk, of Cook, the Senate’s new majority leader. He drew a 47 percent rating – seventh from the bottom of his caucus. His House counterpart, incoming speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, got an 89 percent rating; that put him near the midpoint of his caucus, where 15 members were in 100 percent agreement with Sierra.

Sen. John Marty
Sen. John Marty

The Senate’s chair for environment, energy and natural resoures policy, John Marty, was among those 100 percenters. His Senate colleague Dave Tomassoni of Chisholm, who will head the finance committee with jurisdiction over those same areas, ranked one spot above Bakk at 50 percent.

Over in the House, the finance committee dealing with environmental subjects will be Jean Wagenius of Minneapolis, another 100 percenter. Heading the counterpart policy commmittee will be David Dill of Crane Lake, rated at 40, which put him third from the bottom of the DFL caucus – and actually south of a Republican, Jim Abeler.

Not just indifferent, but antagonistic

The Dill appointment in particular moved some environmental advocates to off-the-record despair last week because they see him as not merely indifferent but antagonistic to their positions, especially on sulfide mining, logging, wolf management and pollution control.

It has been quite a few years since I last talked with Dill, but these comments recalled his rueful complaint that something I’d written for the Star Tribune quoted him – accurately – in a way that he felt made him sound too collaborative and open to consensus.

Last week, in an interview with the Mesabi Daily News after his chairmanship was announced, Dill said:

“There are some powerful Twin Cities legislators with chairmanships that have a high priority on issues that would do us harm. I will make damn sure on the House side to vote no on an environment committee bill if it harms us. A final bill may not have a whole lot in it out of the environment committee, but sometimes less is more on such legislation.”

Rep. David Dill
Rep. David Dill

Asked specifically about working with Marty, Dill said,  “I’ve tried to avoid being in his circles. I don’t think we’d agree on a whole lot of things. If it’s true he’s not supportive of many of our issues, then we’re lucky that someone from northeastern Minnesota has this chairmanship.”

Asked about this, Marty told me he was disappointed in the remarks and also disappointed by Thissen’s choice of Dill for the chairmanship, not because of personal affront but over its implications for  policy progress.

The power to obstruct

“Chairmen aren’t necessarily as powerful as some people think,” Marty said. “But, unfortunately, the way it often works out is that a chair has much more power and autonomy to block something than to move something forward.”

Though he wasn’t as optimistic as Morse and Tuma, Marty assured me that he’s serious about preparing and moving a legislative agenda focused on such priorities as investing in energy efficiency and renewables, combating invasive species and making both energy systems and agriculture more sustainable.

“We don’t need to have 67 senators working day and night on tax and budget and nothing else,” he said. “Actually, some of these environmental investments are key to achieving the kind of budget restructuring and stability we need, by keeping capital here instead of spending it on coal from North Dakota or oil from the Middle East, and by creating the jobs here, too.

“If we don’t get a handle on zebra mussels and carp and other invasive species, we could lose a big part of our tourism industry – and our economy isn’t sustainable without that.”

Though sustainability isn’t one of his favorite words, such talk is music to the ears of Michael Noble at Fresh Energy, who told me that Minnesotans can expect his group and its allies to bring forward a strong energy agenda focused particularly on renewables, heightened efficiency and transportation alternatives. But he acknowledged the competition for legislators’ attention:

“It’s going to be a difficult session, no question, with maybe 60 or 70 percent of the oxygen in the room taken up by the budget – very serious economic and structural problems.”

Opportunities for progress

He didn’t want to talk about intraparty divisions for publication, but I’ll offer my totally personal observation that some energy issues – expanding public transit, for example – can be steered clear of gridlock more readily than, say, sulfide mining, with its northern/southern split. Or water-quality initiatives that now must focus first on agricultural runoff.

But there, too, Morse sees opportunities for progress. Tuma even more so:

“The last time we had one-party control by the DFL, the Legislature broke down 50-50 urban and rural. Nowadays it’s more like one-third urban, one-third rural and one-third suburban. And where there used to be a lot of farmers among the members, now there’s only one, I think.

“So now you have a majority of legislators whose cities and suburbs have been paying for years to clean up their act, wanting agriculture to step up and do the same. From the rural areas, you have way more teachers than farmers now – you could almost call the party the DTL. And that’s how we move forward on water quality.”

Wednesday: What the voters want.

Personal disclosures: From 2007 to 2010 I served on Steve Morse’s board of directors at the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. From 2008 to 2010 I worked for Michael Noble at Fresh Energy. And though I rarely agreed with David Dill, I always looked forward to a spirited interview with a guy who said what he meant, meant what he said, and rarely if ever insisted on going off the record.