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Budget deal looks to address chronic wasting disease, even as Legislature sidesteps more controversial environmental issues

The CWD legislation was a top priority for Republicans and DFLers in the Legislature’s environmental committees, though they differed on how best to address the issue. 

State Rep. Rick Hansen and state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen
State Rep. Rick Hansen and state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen conferring with each other during an environmental conference committee.

Since Minnesota’s legislative session began in January, the slow creep of chronic wasting disease has only progressed.

Now, top lawmakers say they have a response to better contain the highly contagious and fatal brain illness among the state’s deer population. Minnesota is poised to impose tougher regulations on deer hunters and farmers while spending more money on research and prevention efforts as a centerpiece of the budget deal being finalized by Senate Republicans and House DFLers on a conference committee focused on the environment and natural resources.

The CWD legislation was a top priority for both political parties in the Legislature’s environmental committees, although they differed how hard to crack down on deer farmers. The disease response was celebrated by DFLers and Republicans alike this week along with a deal to raise more money to fight aquatic invasive species, among other policy and spending initiatives.

On CWD, “we’ll truly be able to show a compromise that all three branches of government can support,” said Bob Meier, an assistant commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources, referring to the House, Senate and governor’s office.

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In the race to finish an overall state budget — a task not yet accomplished — the CWD response was also one of the few notable initiatives to emerge from closed-door negotiations this week. A special session is expected later this week to pass a full budget, and many environmental issues that split the parties this year won’t move forward — like whether to ban a recreational wolf hunt or pass a law to cement the name Bde Maka Ska on the former Lake Calhoun — while others, like requiring a carbon-free energy grid by 2050, had yet to be decided or publicly discussed as of Wednesday morning.

CWD and more

To combat CWD, legislators agreed to require stronger rules for the fences at deer farms, such as having two redundant gates to prevent escapes by any infected animals. The Board of Animal Health, which oversees the farms, would be given new powers under the plan and more stringent inspection rules.

If a deer tests positive at a farm for CWD, then the farm’s entire herd must be killed and not replaced for five years at the facility. The DNR’s Meier said farm owners had been waiting to “depopulate” their herd until after they got federal funding under a reimbursement process.

Outside of deer farms, lawmakers plan to create an “adopt-a-dumpster” program to encourage safe disposal of wild deer parts and banned the importation of whole carcasses from outside of Minnesota. Meier said the DNR banned out-of-state imports by rule, but the legislation solidified the practice.

The Legislature also expects to reserve about $4.7 million in the next two years for the DNR to continue managing the disease, Meier said, and another $1.8 million for research at the University of Minnesota to develop a faster, easier and cheaper test to diagnose CWD.

Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House Environmental and Natural Resources Finance Division, and some fellow Democrats had pushed for stronger fencing requirements and even voluntary state buyouts of deer farms, among other policies related to CWD. Hansen was the lead negotiator for the DFL in his corresponding conference committee.

But Republicans had balked at the price to the state and to those in the industry. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, an Alexandria Republican who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, said an idea for double fencing at deer farms was “nearly cost prohibitive” to farmers but said the redundant gating would prevent most escapes.

Ingebrigtsen, who was Hansen’s counterpart on the conference committee, said the compromise legislation would help “nip this in the bud” before CWD threatens the deer hunting industry, which he described as a “heritage” of the state. “That was a step in the right direction,” he said of the CWD package. Rich Meech, president of the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association, said they support research and money for new testing and worked to craft the CWD legislation, but generally believe they have been unfairly targeted and over-regulated.

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“The truth of the matter is that cervid farms fear the spread of chronic wasting disease as a career ending catastrophe and consistently do everything in their power to protect themselves against it,” Meech said in an email. “As livestock producers, we understand the importance of reasonable regulation, safe fencing and adhering to common practices when disease is found.”

Overall, lawmakers were given about $13.8 million in new general fund money over existing spending to distribute to environmental causes and state agencies, including the DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. More than $4 million of that will be spent on increased costs at the DNR, such as rising salaries and insurance, Meier said. Another $2.7 million will go to legal fees for DNR and the MPCA for defending their actions in court, including a DNR decision to greenlight the PolyMet copper-nickel mine plan.

Minnesota deer
Top lawmakers say they have a response to better contain the highly contagious and fatal brain illness among the state’s deer population.
The House had originally proposed $32 million in new general fund spending and a hike to several environment-related fees, while the Senate offered a $57 million cut but wanted to backfill some of the money with cash from fees and funds currently dedicated for other uses. “I see the ultimate budget as a true work in compromise and one that will get rid of some of those shifts and raids and transfers,” Meier said.

The surcharge for aquatic invasive species management — levied on three-year boat registrations — would rise from $5 to $10.60 under the plan.

Fate of climate and energy proposals unknown

Ingebrigtsen and Hansen arrived at their budget plans after weeks of talks held both in public and behind closed doors. In recent days, their environmental conference committee was one of the few to hold any open meetings, but they mostly convened for a few minutes at a time to update people on what they had agreed to — and what they had not struck a deal on.

Many other conference committees have not met this week while they hash out budget plans in secret. That includes a panel dedicated to economic development, energy and climate policies that has been debating a limit on a popular solar program, whether to require the state’s energy to come from carbon-free sources by 2050 and other policies, including paid family leave.

A chairman of the conference committee, Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, declined to give any specifics on what policies, if any, have made the cut and which haven’t. In a brief interview Tuesday on a Capitol stairway, Pratt said he’s confident they would reach a budget agreement soon despite some “big sticking points.”

“We’ve made a lot of progress over the last couple of days,” he said.

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Rep. Jean Wagenius, a Minneapolis DFLer who chairs the House’s Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division, declined to comment late Monday while pacing outside of Gov. Tim Walz’s Cabinet room. Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka were holding secret discussions in the room through the night with committee chairs from across the Legislature — and sometimes intervened in the budget talks of individual conference committees.

While the natural resources conference committee was able to work out differences on most issues, Ingebrigtsen said several controversial policies did kick up to the powerful trio.

That included much-debated provisions to ban recreational wolf hunting, create a wild rice stewardship council and finalize the name Bde Maka Ska, Ingebrigtsen said. All, he added, were shot down since each of the three leaders needed to agree on a policy for it to move forward.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled last month the DNR did not have power to change Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, although the agency is appealing the decision. While a state task force recommended lawmakers create a permanent panel to study wild rice and water pollution standards, some DFLers objected, saying there was not enough tribal representation or consultation involved.

A new carpet recycling program proposed by DFLers and a Republican plan to allow some two-line fishing did not make the final cut either, Hansen said.

One thing that did get a thumbs up from the leadership trio: naming the St. Croix River State Water Trail after former Vice President Walter Mondale.

What’s next

In addition to agreements on CWD-related provisions, Ingebrigtsen and Hansen’s committee is finalizing spending of lottery funds dedicated to the environment and their deal had dozens of new laws, including:

  • A “No Child Left Inside” program for outdoor education championed by the DFL Grants for hunting, fishing and firearm safety wanted by Republicans amid declining participation in those sports were merged into the new program as well.
  • Naming the rusty patched bumble bee as the official state bee.
  • A bill to limit the extension of comment periods on some environmental reviews without approval from a business proposing a project, which raised some opposition from environmental groups.

Separate committees are working on how to spend Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment money and agricultural policy and spending.

Hansen and Ingebrigtsen spotlighted the CWD response as some of their most important work of the session. While Hansen said Monday evening that he wanted to do more to fight the disease, he called the mandatory killing of deer herds after positive CWD tests “a big deal.”

“I was looking for more, but the Legislature, particularly the Legislature on the last day of session, is about compromising,” he said.