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Some new — and old — ideas to protect Minnesota’s resources

Coming off a remarkably successful 2007 legislative session, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP) is raising the ante with a new lineup of legislative proposals that would go far in restoring Minnesota’s traditional leadership in resources protection.

“We have key support at the Capitol and we think we have a good chance for success again this year,” said MEP Executive Director Steve Morse. MEP and its 80 advocacy groups pack considerable influence through impressive organization and knowledge of complex issues.

It’s all needed. Minnesota’s natural resources budgets have slipped to a dismal 1 percent of the state budget, and despite his green positioning on some energy issues, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has allowed an erosion of environmental-protection policy that actually started before he took office six years ago.

Impaired waters have been identified all across the state, parks and trails funding has plummeted and funding for transit has lagged far behind urban growth, leading to growing frustration with traffic congestion — amid projections that the Twin Cities will grow by 1.2 million by 2030. The Pawlenty administration has too often stood apart from legislative efforts to regain lost momentum in environmental affairs.

MEP and other conservation advocates are also challenged by the sizeable cost of their proposals — over $300 million — in a tight-money year, and knowing that Pawlenty waves his veto pen whenever increased spending is suggested.

Still, as Morse points out, most of MEP’s proposals have been backed by Pawlenty, at least generally.

For the first time, MEP is throwing its support behind a transit measure that would include the Central Corridor connecting Twin Cities’ downtowns with a light-rail train, constructing eight new dedicated transitways linking a mix of train and bus routes, and doubling bus ridership.

Cost of the plan, which is endorsed by the Metropolitan Council but nixed in a veto of a larger transportation bill last spring by Pawlenty, would be $235 million a year. Faced with a backlog of road projects, the need for bridge inspections following last summer’s dramatic collapse of the I-35W span, and metro drivers angered by worsening traffic delays, transportation is certain to be a front-burner issue when the 2008 Legislature convenes next month in St. Paul.

Another MEP-backed plan would provide $46 million in bonding funding to acquire land and provide incentives for planting perennial grasses to support a cellulosic and biomass enthanol industry that was given a major boost in a federal energy bill enacted last month. Pawlenty’s point person for energy policy, Assistant Commerce Commissioner Michael Bull, has said that putting land into growing stock for biofuels is key in readying the state for the national rush to expand ethanol production.

MEP is supporting the innovative “cap and trade” system to set overall limits on industrial carbon emissions linked to climate change, then allow polluters to trade carbon credits in a market-driven approach that would place increasingly higher costs on emitting carbon gasses. The plan’s initial target is to reduce emissions from power plants, already under a 2007 legislative mandate to generate 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

The “cap and trade” system enjoys broad legislative support and was endorsed last November by Pawlenty when he helped win support of nine states in the Midwsest Governor’s Conference for a regional market-driven plan to reduce carbon emissions. Pawlenty has made clean energy a leading issue in his chairmanship of the National Governor’s Conference.

In its energy package, MEP will ask the Legislature to set carbon dioxide limits on automobiles, something that California and 16 other states were told last month by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that they couldn’t do because of federal pre-emption. The controversial EPA ruling is being challenged by the affected states.

MEP and a broader coalition of conservation groups will seek a final push for the Legislature to allow a state-wide ballot on a constitutional amendment to expand the sales tax to increase natural resource and arts funding by $300 million annually (80 percent going to conservation).

The plan was nearly passed in 2007, and is widely expected to win legislative approval after years of debate. The sales tax would go up by 3/8 of a percent. Proponents say conservation spending has fallen to a paltry 1 percent of Minnesota’s budget despite widespread public support for natural resources protection.

Also in MEP’s legislative package (PDF) is a request for $316 million in bonding for a variety of projects under the headings of habitat and natural resources, outdoor recreation, and clean water.

The 2008 Legislature will be the traditional even-year bonding session, and given the dismal state revenue forecast it is expected to be interesting — if not contentious.

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