Democrats who control the Minnesota House on Monday muscled through a historically large budget plan for environmental spending on a party-line vote.
But first, DFL lawmakers had to strip one of their major priorities from that bill — reviving a Citizens’ Board to oversee pollution permits — and water down several measures, like an environmental justice policy meant to address the long-term impacts of contamination.
It was an unusually public last-minute change, and it drew discontent and disappointment from many Democrats. But a few of their colleagues from Greater Minnesota insisted on the changes amid criticism that the legislation would be a roadblock for economic development and critical industries like mining and agriculture.
“We had four Democrats from Greater Minnesota who refused to vote for the bill unless those changes were made,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee.
The episode illustrated the limits on DFL ambitions for new environmental regulations.
The party has full control of the Legislature and is overwhelmingly made up of urban and metro-area lawmakers who support tougher rules on pollution. But there are just enough Democrats in the House and Senate from rural areas to tamp down some of the party’s ideas that proved controversial among business interests and some DFL allies like the building trades.
In a few cases, Democrats have struck a compromise by applying regulations only to urban areas, including big regional centers in Greater Minnesota, but exempting most rural areas.
What Democratic leaders wanted to pass
Democrats have plenty of common ground on environment policy and spending, but one idea that split the party was the push to revive the Citizens’ Board that once handled permits for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
State lawmakers axed the board in 2015, ending a 48-year run for the panel and handing greater power to the commissioner of the agency. The board’s supporters said it was eliminated because the members voted to make a large dairy farm go through more extensive environmental review.
And with full DFL control of the Legislature, progressive environmental organizations wanted to reinstate a new version of the board. They argued it would lead to more independent oversight of the industry and a more transparent and trustworthy permitting process.
Republicans and large agriculture trade groups disagreed. Opponents said the board was simply a vehicle for environmentalists to unfairly stop projects, circumventing scientists and MPCA regulators.
The measure was included in Hansen’s omnibus bill, at least until the floor vote on Monday. Also in that large omnibus bill was the environmental justice policy aimed at limited cumulative impacts of pollution.
The initial bill proposed in the House by Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, required the MPCA to consider the “aggregated levels of past and current air, water and land pollution,” when deciding whether to issue a permit in — or near — parts of the state defined as environmental justice areas.
That would include census tracts where 40% or more of the population is nonwhite, at least 35% of households have an income at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, or tracts where 40% or more of the population over the age of five have limited English proficiency. It also included all tribal reservations.
The bill would have applied to new air and water pollution permits. But it also would have applied to some businesses hoping to expand a facility and companies that needed to renew or amend a major air permit.
During a March committee hearing, Roxxanne O’Brien, co-founder of Community Members for Environmental Justice, an anti-pollution coalition based in north Minneapolis, said it’s not easy to object to polluting industries in areas already overburdened by “constant trauma.”
“It took us 10 years to fight what was happening at Northern Metals and to get that support,” she said, referencing a metal shredder that moved from north Minneapolis to Becker. “I’m here today to ask that you guys correct the historic racial wrongs that have been done historically in my community.”
But the legislation drew opposition from organizations that called for more targeted action to help areas hurt by pollution. Some said the bill was far too broad, unclear in its directives, and would hurt economic development.
Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said “almost the entire population of the state” would be in or near an environmental justice area.
Craig Johnson, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, said “virtually every permit would need to include this assessment.”
“Every community wastewater plant, every community with a stormwater permit, at least every five years would need to do a cumulative environmental assessment of any potentially affected environmental justice area just to get their permit renewed even if no changes were made,” Johnson said.
DFL rolls back its environmental ambitions
On the House floor Monday, lawmakers amended the environmental omnibus bill to delete the new Citizens’ Board. And they changed the cumulative impacts bill.
The altered proposal applies only to some air permits. And it would be limited to environmental justice areas in the seven-county metro area and the cities of Duluth, Mankato, Moorhead, North Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud. A separate odor management policy and an air toxics inventory was also restricted to the seven-county metro by the House DFL.
That could be an emerging political strategy from the DFL. At least two other major Democratic proposals limit their reach to the Twin Cities metro: a sales tax increase for the Met Council that would raise money for transit and local road projects and a sales tax in the seven-county metro to pay for affordable housing.
Hansen told MinnPost the four Democrats who forced the changes to the environmental bill were Reps. Dave Lislegard of Aurora, Gene Pelowski of Winona, Luke Frederick of Mankato, and Jeff Brand of St. Peter. The split, and resulting internal tension, was perhaps controversial enough that none of the four agreed to an interview to explain their views on the policies, declining through spokesman DJ Danielson.
In a written statement, Lislegard praised compromise and the “need to listen to one another’s perspectives.”
“In our DFL party we have a big tent and folks have a variety of different views on issues, and to get to a place where we can pass a bill, we need broad consensus,” he said. “I’m glad we’re able to talk through things and work together to get this important work done.”
Peterson, from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, came to the defense of the lawmakers, saying people in Greater Minnesota expect their lawmakers to be “independent thinkers.”
“Whether Democrats or Republicans they don’t expect their representatives to be 100% in lockstep with what others in their party might want,” Peterson said in a written statement. “If it takes a handful of legislators stepping up and tapping the breaks on some of these really impactful bills, to make sure they don’t overreach and that the details get done right, that’s a good thing.”
Republicans praised the alterations during the House floor debate. “The MPCA Citizens’ Board created a lot of problems in years past for businesses, mining operations,” said Rep. Josh Heintzeman, a Republican from Nisswa.
Lislegard had expressed concerns about the Citizens’ Board bill during a March hearing. Legislators in northern Minnesota harbored worries about a board’s handling of the mining industry.
Lislegard said a board could overturn the recommendations of staff regulators who scrutinize the project in the environmental permitting process. “What company in any way, shape or form is going to spend the time, money and resources to go through a process to prove that they can meet or exceed both state and federal standards and then on top of that, after you’ve passed all tests, a Citizens’ Board comes in and denies it?” Lislegard said at the time.
Over in the state Senate, DFL lawmakers did not include the Citizens’ Board measure in their environmental omnibus bill, meaning the policy will not become law this year.
And Democrats in an earlier Senate committee hearing made their own changes to narrow the scope of the cumulative impacts bill, including to exempt a vast swath of northeastern Minnesota known as the Taconite Assistance Area at the request of Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown. Hauschild amended the bill with the help of Republicans over the objection of the committee chairman Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul. That version of the bill is also limited mainly to the seven-county metro.
Even a more limited bill has drawn consternation from the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council, which is often friendly to DFL proposals.
Democrats do agree on most environmental policy and are likely to approve both historic spending and legislation controversial among Republicans like sweeping new regulations on deer farmers meant to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease.
But there’s also plenty of disagreements. Lots of ideas supported by many DFL lawmakers and environmental nonprofits never make it anywhere close to becoming law because of the more rural Democrats. For example, the House and Senate never entertained bills meant to block copper-nickel mining projects because DFLers in northeastern Minnesota support the prospective industry and retain critical seats in swing districts for the party.
But the defeat of legislation supported by the progressive wing of the party was notable for its public nature and because House Democrats have a slightly larger majority than Senate DFLers, usually allowing them to advance a more liberal agenda. Hansen said controversial ideas are typically nixed “in the darkness” of conference committees that meet privately to hash out differences between the House and Senate.
Hansen said the Greater Minnesota lawmakers were voting their districts, but he also blamed lobbyists and interest groups killing or narrowing the provisions he supported.
“We’ve got to be able to move forward and not be paralyzed by fear,” Hansen said. “I don’t like it, still have a half a loaf and keep pushing on it.”
MinnPost staff writer Peter Callaghan contributed to this report.