On Tuesday, when House Democratic Leader Melissa Hortman addressed an election-night crowd after Minnesota’s lower chamber flipped to DFL control, she called for a legislative agenda that includes “keeping our air and water clean.”
Hortman’s speech was one of many in a night full of DFL victories, but it also signified one of the more important power shifts when it comes to the debate over balancing jobs with environmental concerns in Minnesota.
And while the election didn’t result in a dramatic shift in the status quo — the Senate remains in GOP hands and Tim Walz’s victory continues the DFL’s command of the executive branch — the easing of Republicans’ grip on the Legislature will create a more favorable atmosphere for environmentalists’ priorities on issues such as clean water regulations, said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.
On the flip side, Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said the change in leadership is likely to stifle his efforts to make life easier for rural businesses, including agriculture. “Clearly the environment we’ll be facing in state government will be very different with the change in the state House,” Morse said Wednesday.
Fewer rollback attempts
Exactly what policies the DFL may be able to send to Walz’s desk with a new House majority is far from clear. Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, a DFL member of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, said it was too early to set goals or offer specific policies with so many new lawmakers joining her caucus.
But Tuesday’s election results may be as much about what won’t get passed by the Legislature as what will. For the two years they’ve owned majorities in both the House and Senate, Republicans have often tried to roll back environmental protections with the aim of boosting economic development — particularly in rural areas of the state — to varying degrees of success.
With the House controlled by a DFL majority, Morse said he would be surprised if significant cuts to environmental standards move ahead in the Legislature. “I do think that there will be much less activity on rolling things back and undercutting our current standards and protections,” he said.
In recent sessions, Gov. Mark Dayton has sometimes been forced to make concessions to the GOP during heated legislative battles or use his veto to kill bills that would weaken or quash regulations. Last year, for example, Dayton vetoed a controversial bill that would have nullified the state’s standard for sulfate pollution in wild rice waters.
Supporters of the bill maintain the wild rice rule is scientifically outdated, largely unenforced and too expensive for polluters like wastewater treatment plants and taconite mining operations to comply with. A task force called by Dayton is now studying possible reforms to wild rice protections, which many environmental groups have fought to keep.
Fabian, the top Republican on the House’s environmental committee, said he doubted any bill to nullify or weaken the wild rice standard would make it past House DFLers. Hortman, who is from Brooklyn Park, voted against the wild rice measure, and Morse said he predicted many of the new lawmakers would be like minded since they’re largely from the suburbs.
Iron Range DFLers mostly sided with Republicans on the wild rice pollution standard, but Fabian said they probably won’t have enough political clout to push any bill across the finish line. “We worked really hard to solve the wild rice situation,” he said. “And quite frankly I don’t see that going anywhere at this point.”
Many Republicans have also tried to repeal or soften Dayton’s signature policy requiring protective land buffers along waterways to reduce water pollution from agriculture. Walz has said he would take a similar approach as Dayton with buffers, though he’s also said he’s open to making it more flexible and to providing a tax rebate for land taken out of agricultural production.
Tough new regulations unlikely
With DFL in control of the House, Fabian said the GOP-controlled Senate will now act as a “roadblock” against new taxes and regulations on agriculture or other industries.
Some environmental organizations and DFL lawmakers have criticized the state’s approach of coaxing farmers toward anti-pollution practices with incentives and voluntary programs, but it’s doubtful there’s a huge appetite for strict regulations to force farmers to implement new standards.
Walz himself told MinnPost last month that he’d prefer to focus on developing new technology and other ways to clean soil and water instead of burdening Minnesota’s huge agriculture industry.
The change in House leadership also isn’t likely to affect the status quo on two of the most controversial environmental issues in the state: mining in northern Minnesota and the Enbridge pipeline project.
Fabian said decisions on permitting and authorizing mines are largely up to governors and their agency chiefs. Walz has said the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt should go forward if it passes environmental reviews and receives permits. The same is true for the pipeline project, which Walz has also supported.
There are some areas in which environmentalists hope House control allows them to play offense, though. Morse said he thinks that includes policies with benefits for industry and environmentalists, such as further development of profitable crops that can replace or supplement the steady diet of corn and soybeans in Minnesota in the aim of improving soil and water health.
The main project for that, the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green initiative, has received money from the Legislature in the past, but Morse said Walz has expressed “strong support for really ramping up the funding on that.”
Becker-Finn said she hopes DFLers can do more to combat Chronic Wasting Disease among deer and elk populations. Some DFLers, including Becker-Finn, have pushed for tougher regulations after reports of lax oversight of deer farms.
Protecting environmental funds
Another place Tuesday’s election results may have an effect: the use of dedicated environmental funds. Environmentalists were unhappy when Republicans this year used the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF), rather than traditional bonds, to pay for a $98 million package of infrastructure projects.
The ENRTF, a constitutional amendment first approved in 1988, is bankrolled by the lottery and dedicated to “protection, conservation, preservation and enhancement of the state’s air, water, land, fish, wildlife and other natural resources.”
The Legislature used the trust fund money for construction projects that benefit the environment — including water treatment in small towns and upkeep for parks and trails. The GOP argued it was necessary to combat pollution and improve unsatisfactory infrastructure.
But some environmental groups and DFLers contend the fund is supposed to be used for what they view as supplemental spending on natural resources, not essential projects like wastewater treatment.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and other groups have sued to reverse the spending from the trust fund, and also voiced concern the Legislature would try to, in their view, improperly use money from the voter-approved 2008 Legacy Amendment, which pays for natural resources projects through a sales tax.
Some in the House have pledged to restore the funds to the ENRTF. Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul DFLer and the party’s lead on the House Environmental Committee, has already promised to introduce a bill to use traditional bonds for the infrastructure projects.
In an interview, Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said she agreed with the lawsuit and struck a conciliatory tone on moving into the next session. Ruud, who chairs the Senate’s main environmental policy committee, said many environmental efforts get bipartisan support and predicted the Legislature can find common ground on issues such as lead in drinking water, fighting invasive species and doling out money from the Legacy funds.
“I think we’ll work just great together,” she said.