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Pawlenty moving to abolish Environmental Quality Board

Gov. Tim Pawlenty will unveil plans this week to move the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and abolish the 35-year-old board that, despite its lofty mission to oversee state environment policy, has shown little willingness to assert leadership.  
The EQB plan is among realignment ideas that persistently swirl around the Capitol as legislators seek ways to trim government cost and improve services — or dilute effectiveness of agencies they don’t like. 
Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, is working on a draft to fuse the Department of Natural Resources and MPCA and possibly add other smaller resources groups to create a super environmental agency.  She said impetus for her plan comes from a years-old draft bill by Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, and by a constituent who prepared a comprehensive paper on gaining government efficiency by combining agencies — and even creating a unicameral (one house) legislature.

And Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, said she’s “thinking about” legislation to move the Office of Energy Security out of the Department of Commerce to the MPCA where its energy-policy role may be a better fit.  Anderson is in a strong position to move her idea, as she chairs the Senate Environment and Energy Finance Division.

Sen. Ellen Anderson
Sen. Ellen Anderson

Separately, ideas to tinker with governmental organization typically diffuse, especially when — as this year — legislators get deeper into a session beset with politically difficult budgetary challenges.  But with Gov. Pawlenty sending up a bill to make the EQB changes, some may see it as a “platform” to tack on their own plans.  
Deputy MPCA Commissioner Tim Scherkenbach, who is the administration’s point person on the EQB plan, said the draft legislation calls for a report to the Legislature on ways that EQB could better carry out its oversight and coordinating role in state government in view of several other similar bodies that have been created. 
Scherkenbach will present the draft plan to the MPCA’s Citizen’s Board today.
When it was created in 1973 in the bright afterglow of the first Earth Day, the EQB was seen as a way to focus and direct public eco policy by, among other things, overseeing an aggressive environmental review process for development and public policy that could have broad effects on air, land and water. 
“At least that was the idea,” said Chuck Dayton of St. Paul, a long-time advocate who was a driving force behind numerous laws including the Environmental Policy Act (that created the EQB), the Environmental Rights Act and wilderness designation for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. 
Dayton said the EQB diluted its effectiveness by adopting rules that have made it difficult to gain the kind of environmental review that advocates have sought. 
The problem, he said, is that the EQB’s board consists of four citizens and the heads of nine state agencies with self-interests that make it difficult to gain a policy consensus. 
Dayton said that few environmental statements are prepared on activities with potentially major environmental effects, while, for example, the state of Massachusetts prepares 200 or more a year. 

Under the draft bill, EQB’s statutory role in guiding state eco policy would not initially change but would be examined and a report on changes would be submitted to the 2010 Legislature.  The bill would abolish the EQB’s board by July of next year and transfer authority to the MPCA’s nine-member Citizens Board, which by law is chaired by the MPCA commissioner.

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