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Why the GOP wants to cut Minnesota’s environmental spending

St. Louis River
The House Republican plan would not fully fund Gov. Tim Walz’s request to maintain staff who are coordinating clean-up of industrial waste in the St. Louis River.

The Republican majority in the Minnesota Senate has been clear since the beginning of the 2019 legislative session: It believes the state can spend more money on priorities like K-12 schools and the transportation system — without raising taxes. But because Minnesota has limited extra cash on hand to make that happen, other parts of state government would face shrinking budgets as a result.

That includes Minnesota’s environmental spending. As part of their two-year budget plan, Senate Republicans have proposed $57 million in general fund cuts from offices like the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

While few other areas of government would see as large a cut if the Senate’s budget were to become law, top GOP lawmakers contend the cuts wouldn’t be a serious threat to Minnesota’s ability to keep parks open and take care of water and air. Not surprisingly, many in the DFL-led House and in the administration of Gov. Tim Walz do not agree, and the Senate plan has drawn enough backlash to become another sticking point in already contentious budget negotiations.

Laura Bishop, commissioner of the MPCA, told a Senate panel last week the Republican plan “makes drastic negative changes” that will impact Minnesotans “who expect clean water, clean air and environmental protection, which also protects human health.”

Why the cut?

So why do Republicans have the environment in their sights for a spending cut?

State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen
State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen
Unlike, say, a freeze on money for the state’s troubled Child Care Assistance Program, the environmental budget proposal isn’t born out of frustration with how state agencies are performing, said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee.

He said it’s part of a broader Republican strategy to slow down the growth of state government and limit tax increases. The agencies doing environmental work are better positioned to absorb general fund cuts, Ingebrigtsen added, because they can use money from dedicated environmental fees to make up for it.

For example, the Senate plan would ax about $2 million from the MPCA’s budget dedicated to paying for operations at the Environmental Quality Board, and replace it with money from the state’s Environmental Fund, which is paid for mostly by taxes on garbage.

The budget proposal would also cut more than $10 million from the general fund for state parks and trails, though it would shift state lottery money to the same purpose. (As a result, however, there would be less lottery money, which is used to pay for environmental projects around the state.)

The MPCA would see a general fund budget cut of $11.4 million in the Senate’s plan, although its total available money is only reduced by $4.65 million, according to Republicans. The DNR would lose $34 million from the general fund, and a net reduction of $21.9 million from its total available cash. (Even the Minnesota Zoo gets a $2.7 million cut.)

Ingebrigtsen sought to put the spending cuts in perspective, however. Senate staff noted the net reductions for the MPCA amounted to a roughly 0.7 percent cut, and about a 2.1 percent cut for the DNR (or 1.4 percent if the lottery money for parks is included). The DNR had a roughly $1 billion budget in the last biennium.

Ingebrigtsen also noted environmental spending isn’t exactly coming to a screeching halt. He pointed to the billions in dedicated money from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, a sales tax approved by voters in 2008. The Legacy Amendment, however, explicitly specified that Legacy funds were required to be used to supplement, not substitute for, traditional sources of funding.

“Having to cut budgets and having to cut the zoo and having to cut things like that are not popular things to do,” he said. “But we think we can do this and still get by.”

Ingebrigtsen did have some additions in his budget, including $200,000 for a program aimed at increasing fishing among high schoolers to spark new interest in the sport. Fishing licenses pay for a host of DNR work and were at near-historic lows in 2018.

Contrast with Walz and the House

Even so, the agencies being cut did not take kindly to the proposal. Bishop, the MPCA commissioner, said the Republican budget put existing work at risk, and ignored a swath of new initiatives proposed by the governor.

For example, the GOP plan would not fully fund Walz’s request to maintain staff who are coordinating clean-up of industrial waste in the St. Louis River — expected to cost about $484,000 in the next two years, and another $726,000 in the following two years. The state uses about $25 million in bonds for the clean-up itself and, as a result, gets another $47 million in matching funds from the federal government. “Without staff to do the work, we risk the federal government reassigning the money to projects in other states that are prepared to use it,” Bishop wrote in a letter to Ingebrigtsen.

She also said funding agencies with fees based on habits they want to end or reduce — like garbage or pollution — was not a good idea.

Sarah Strommen, the DNR commissioner, also told senators the money was not enough for their efforts to combat chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer or to fight invasive species, among other issues.

The governor’s budget and the House DFL budget are not identical, but would each spend roughly an extra $33 million from the general fund above base funding on environmental agencies, in addition to other money raised from increases to fees and a hefty boost to Minnesota’s gas tax. That includes $4.57 million for CWD and the requested money for the St. Louis River.

The House budget has a sweep of new measures aimed at increasing outdoor recreation and environmental health, including $500,000 for a “no child left inside” program that would pay for outdoor education and $637,000 in the next two years for a “lawns to legumes” grant program to subsidize homeowners planting pollinator-friendly yards.

State Rep. Rick Hansen
State Rep. Rick Hansen
Walz also proposed a bonding bill to raise $1.27 billion for construction projects around the state, including $109 million for the DNR to take care of trails, roads, building, wastewater systems and more. Republicans have been opposed to a bonding bill this year, arguing one should be done in 2020 instead.

Rep. Rick Hansen, a DFLer from South St. Paul who chairs the House’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division, said making agencies rely on money transferred from fees was a “short-term fix” but not a “long-term solution” for problems that need attention.

Still, despite the sharp words from the Walz administration and budget plans that are seemingly at odds, Hansen and Ingebrigtsen said they expect to find common ground before the Legislature adjourns on May 20. Issues that have become most divisive to party leaders, such as continuing a health care “provider tax,” are not huge obstacles for the environmental debate, Hansen said.

Legislators are currently on a weeklong break for Easter and Passover holidays, but they will reconvene Tuesday to hash out compromises.

Ingebrigtsen even made a point to note he has supported increases in some environmental fees in the past. “Everybody says you’re supposed to work together to get to the middle, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/18/2019 - 09:56 am.

    This a naked attempt to deregulate an effective government agency so Republicans can allow corporations and executives to make increased profits at the expense of tax paying citizens.

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/18/2019 - 10:31 am.

    What is Minnesota known for? Being the land of sky blue waters. In other words, clean water, clean air and clean living. That differentiates us from a lot of Republican states as well as Trump conversion of the Environmental Protection Agency to the Environmental Pollution Agency. Why do Republicans think that the very thing that helps keep us healthy, reducing our healthcare costs, should be cut. Anyone who hunts and fishes should be appalled by this proposal!

  3. Submitted by Jon Ruff on 04/18/2019 - 11:26 am.

    This seems so Trumpian, wait! I meant dystopian.
    Is it true that a majority of the lakes in the southern half of the state are so polluted as to suggest not swimming in them? Or drinking from private wells around them? What the hey! we can still go Up North, at least until the copper mine dam collapses. Heck, I’d like to see a new curriculum to re-teach people how to recycle!
    Oh well, it’s a dying planet anyway.

  4. Submitted by Mike Downing on 04/18/2019 - 11:38 am.

    The more appropriate question to ask is why Gov Waltz and the House Democrats think we taxpayers can afford a 10% increase in the state budget once again when we have a $ billion surplus?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/18/2019 - 06:09 pm.

      Here we go again:

      As a legacy of the T-Paw era, state budget forecasts factor in inflation on the revenue side but not the spending side. If inflation is factored in, the “surplus” evaporates.

      Conservatives have a real hard time understanding this. But we’ll keep patiently explaining it. We call it Econ 101.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/18/2019 - 03:13 pm.

    More of the same…..

  6. Submitted by Brian Simon on 04/18/2019 - 04:24 pm.

    Wishing more conservatives saw conservation as another form of conserving our way of life.

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 04/20/2019 - 10:19 pm.

      Republicans prove daily why their self assigned title of conservative is meaningless. You can’t use Republican and conservative in the same sentence without causing laughter. Deficits were unacceptable until their conservative leader took charge. They say they are the healthcare party, but they have NOTHING. It’s another vote for me now and then we’ll deliver healthcare, which didn’t work last time. The Republican’s have lost their morality and ethics. The coward at the top has turned the Republican congressional members into cowards too.

  7. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 04/18/2019 - 05:34 pm.

    When Polymet gets their bath tub next to the mining operation I dare any of its supporters to take a dip.

  8. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 04/18/2019 - 10:14 pm.

    Are these “cuts” actually a reduction in spending from last year, or just not as big an increase in spending?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/19/2019 - 12:15 pm.

      If your employer paid you a salary of $80K in 2018, and you will earn that same $80K in 2019, would you call that a cut, an increase, or staying the same.

      (Hint: the CPI for 2018 was about 2%.)

  9. Submitted by Matt Haas on 04/19/2019 - 06:56 am.

    The same crowd that tells us to “trust them” on sulfide mines. Conservatives never met a resource they didn’t want to pillage and befoul. Plus, I think this is the goofball leading the war on muskies.

  10. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 04/19/2019 - 11:33 am.

    Although they are mere peanuts to the larger cuts, I would have no problem with elimination of the programs to get kids to fish or “no child left outside” programs. I am guessing those programs have minimal impact on what kids end up doing. If we don’t have an environment for these kids to grow up into, who cares if they in a programs that got them outside.

  11. Submitted by John Helgerson on 04/19/2019 - 06:29 pm.

    The GOP is all about short term fixes…bouncing from one “fix” to another when a problem arises. Just as government by executive order is no way to manage a country, these constant fixes create instability and chaos. When it comes to the envirment and climate change, maybe they didn’t believe (al’a Trump)the recent outlook for Minnesota. What will they do when the fishing, hunting, boating and other industries and activities no longer exist?

  12. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 04/19/2019 - 09:56 pm.

    Why is it that Republicans in Minnesota always “think we can do this and still get by?” I would welcome a change in perspective by Sen. Ingebrigtsen as well as other Minnesota Republicans that focus on doing better rather than always just “getting by”.

  13. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 04/21/2019 - 03:43 pm.

    Minnesotans voted for a Democratic Governor three times in a row, both who promised more taxes on wealthy for a better state. MnN voters voted for this by pretty convincing margins, for 12 years. The only reason the Republicans are in a majority in Senate is there was no statewide Senate election. The tax cuts they propose are aimed at corporations and the wealthy.

    As to reducing government, ask the voters of WBL If they want less regulation for pollution, or Anoka, or SE MN near animal containment facilities. They have resoundingly said
    They want clean air and water. All three are Republican areas. Maybe they should listen.

  14. Submitted by Dave Carlson on 04/21/2019 - 09:03 pm.

    One of the reasons I moved to Minnesota and have stayed here for 40 years is the unique natural environment and quality of life for all sorts of outdoor recreational activities. Not only do these cuts and the general Republican-led indifference (or hostility) to environmental programs and common-sense pollution controls hurt the people of Minnesota directly, but they adversely impact our billion-dollar tourism industry. And yes, it is hugely alarming and shameful that many of our 10,000+ lakes are not safe for swimming and fishing, and that clean drinking water is being contaminated by nitrates and other sources of toxic groundwater pollution.

  15. Submitted by Aaron Albertson on 04/22/2019 - 04:22 pm.

    So the party of jobs doesn’t care if DNR and PCA employees lose their jobs? How interesting. Thankfully cooler heads run the house and governor’s office.

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