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Minnesota’s Legislative Water Commission, left in limbo, hopes for quick resuscitation

It was either an innocent snafu, partisan budget negotiations gone awry or a mix of the two. But either way, the LWC is stuck in government purgatory — granted new funding but still set to sunset on July 1.

A meeting of the Legislative Water Commission
A meeting of the Legislative Water Commission at the state Capitol on Monday.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

It was either an innocent snafu, partisan budget negotiations gone awry or a mix of the two. But either way, Minnesota’s Legislative Water Commission (LWC) is stuck in government purgatory.

The Legislature this year approved money for the 12-member panel of lawmakers dedicated to hammering out complex and bipartisan water policy. Yet it did not extend the commission’s authority to exist past a legal deadline.

The mix-up has left the LWC in a state of limbo — mostly dead, not all dead — that its leaders are blaming in part on hurried, closed-door negotiations toward the end of Minnesota’s legislative session last month. It’s the type of headache that some warned of as politicians raced to close a fragile $48.3 billion budget deal in roughly a day after rounds of backroom talks.

Now, the legislators in charge of the LWC are scrambling to persuade party leaders to resuscitate the committee so it doesn’t become defunct July 1 — even if they don’t completely understand how they arrived in the odd situation in the first place.

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“I gotta be honest with you, how it wound up in the budget without that happening, I’m not entirely sure,” Sen. Bill Weber said of the committee’s sunset extension. The Luverne Republican, who co-chairs the commission, said House DFLers offered to extend the commission during budget talks, while Senate Republicans did not. “It went back and forth in negotiations a couple of times,” Weber said. “And then all of the sudden it was gone.”  

The case for a water commission

The commission was created in 2014 with the task of building nuanced water laws and consensus on thorny issues relating to Minnesota’s most abundant natural resource. The panel also reviews the work of state agencies. Its members are split evenly between Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate, and they meet even when the Legislature is not in session.

State Sen. Bill Weber
State Sen. Bill Weber
The commission meetings are often detailed affairs, and its supporters tout the expertise the committee can foster. Rep. Peter Fischer, a Maplewood DFLer who wrote the bill that created the LWC and co-chairs the commission, said Monday that a standing committee gives lawmakers the power to bring agency leaders to testify year-round and keeps the spotlight on water in the way an informal group may not. It also helps the Legislature be proactive in protecting water instead of reacting to problems after they’re already severe, Fischer said.

“This is stuff that is really boring; it’s not sexy at all,” Fischer said. “As my wife would say, ‘This does not make good reality TV, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.’ But it’s also the kind of stuff that means you’re doing the good, hard work that keeps the state running smoothly in the future without having some of the unintended consequences.”

As evidence of this substantive, if sometimes unflashy, impact, Fischer pointed to a bill he authored and passed this year that committee documents say “improves coordination among watershed management organizations.”

State Rep. Peter Fischer
State Rep. Peter Fischer
Not all agree the LWC is a worthy endeavor, however. Weber, the Luverne Republican, said some of his fellow Republicans “feel we are maybe overcommissioned, overcommitteed and that type of thing.”

Fischer, too, said some have doubted whether water policy can’t just be addressed during the legislative session like so many other issues and question whether lawmakers are doing enough to justify the hassle and expense.

Some DFL leaders on environmental committees also proposed legislation this year that would effectively combine the LWC and the Clean Water Council. That council, which includes both state officials and private citizens, makes recommendation on spending money reserved for water issues as part of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, a constitutional provision that dedicates a sales tax to conservation, arts and culture spending.

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An accident or failed negotiations?

Republicans not sold on the water commission had leverage when it came to budget talks. When lawmakers first approved the LWC in 2014, they also put an expiration date of July 1, 2019.

Rep. Michael Nelson, a Brooklyn Park DFLer who led negotiations in the State Government conference committee that oversees the LWC, told MinnPost that Democrats proposed extending the committee by five years. He said Senate Republicans had no such plan, and tried to use the commission as a “bargaining chip” during talks.

No agreement was ever reached and the commission was cast aside when party leaders demanded controversial issues be left out to cinch the larger budget deal, Nelson said. A spokeswoman for Senate Republicans also said the commission became part of negotiations and that lawmakers ultimately did not agree to keep it.

State Rep. Michael Nelson
State Rep. Michael Nelson
So why did lawmakers approve the money for the LWC? Nelson said state budget officials accidently assumed the money in the “base” budget of continuing spending for the Legislative Coordinating Commission (LCC), which helps implement various government panels, despite the water commission’s sunset. It then got overlooked and written into the final spending plan, Nelson said.

That money has given a lifeline to the water commission. Weber said the LWC expects to get approval as a subcommittee of the LCC for two years and operate more or less as it had been. Fischer said he was meeting with House Speaker Melissa Hortman to discuss the plan Monday. Hortman and Senate President Jeremy Miller lead the LCC.

While some Republicans have not supported the water commission, Weber said the panel has “turned a little bit” to deal with more “practical” issues faced by local government. “I think that provides us an opportunity from a legislative standpoint to delve a little deeper into those individual problems and hopefully come up with better answers,” he said.

Weber also maintained the LWC’s expiration was more of an accident, left out of the budget as lawmakers hurried to avoid a long special session, rather than a product of opposition to the commission.

Asked why a select group of lawmakers should revive a committee the Legislature did not vote to continue, Fischer said he believes a more open and transparent negotiation with strong vetting of the budget plan would have yielded an extension of the LWC. Plus, the LCC’s approval would be a vote of confidence from top lawmakers in both parties, he said.

“If leadership is saying we’re going to figure out how keep this going for the next two years, I think that’s pretty important right there,” Fischer said.