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?
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.
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.