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Higher fees for boats and jet skis but anglers, park visitors won’t pay more under final DFL environmental bill

Those fees are part of a larger package of legislation that includes a massive $670 million infusion of new state spending from Minnesota’s general fund for the environment and natural resources.

Lake Nokomis Marina
Democrats who control the Minnesota Legislature are planning to raise fees on one area of outdoor recreation: watercraft registrations.

Minnesota lawmakers won’t hike the price of fishing licenses or state park permits under a budget deal struck by DFL lawmakers, rejecting a proposal for higher fees made by the Department of Natural Resources this year. But Democrats who control the Legislature are planning to raise fees on one area of outdoor recreation: watercraft registrations.

Those fees are part of a larger package of legislation that includes a massive $670 million infusion of new state spending from Minnesota’s general fund for the environment and natural resources. The bundle of policy and money — known as an “omnibus” bill — is expected to clear the Legislature soon and reach the desk of Gov. Tim Walz.

“We’re thrilled with this budget outcome,” DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said in an interview. While the bill won’t have some of DNR’s proposed fee increases, the budget “truly represents a historic level of investment in the environment, in the outdoors,” she said.

Strommen said the agreement includes about $300 million in the two-year budget for her agency, including more than $110 million for an initiative to modernize outdoor recreation infrastructure such as dilapidated fish hatcheries. The omnibus bill also has money for programs and operations at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and other environmental divisions in state government.

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DFL lawmakers in the House and Senate were largely united in pushing for a boost to environmental initiatives, and they proposed many of the same spending priorities. But as Democrats hashed out differences between their budget plans, the prospect of fees was one point of disagreement.

Republicans and some DFL legislators opposed more expensive permits for outdoor recreation, arguing it was unnecessary to hike prices when Minnesota is flush with a historic $17.5 billion budget surplus. But the DNR and other Democrats said much of the surplus was only available in the short term, so bringing in a steady stream of cash into the future would help the agency bolster its services as it seeks to upgrade infrastructure like those hatcheries, boat accesses, and campgrounds.

The agency’s budget also relies on those fees more than other areas of state government. The DNR gets less money from Minnesota’s general operating fund, which pays for things like K-12 education and social services.

The DNR initially proposed increases on fees for park permits, fishing licenses, watercraft registrations, and an additional boating surcharge for aquatic invasive species. The agency also asked to raise fees on businesses like golf courses and landscapers for certain water use and on utilities for some regulatory work. All were included in a budget plan made by House Democrats. None were in a Senate DFL proposal.

In the end, lawmakers decided to raise three of those fees. Only one hits everyday outdoor recreation. That’s the bump in watercraft license fees. 

The cost of these registrations, which last for three years, would rise between 78% and 143% depending on the size of the boat. The current registration fee for a motorboat between 17 feet and 19 feet is $27, and the fee would increase to $59.

The extra fees would raise about $14.8 million in the budget cycle, the most of any proposed increase. Minnesota has among the most boats per capita in the nation, and, unlike Wisconsin and other boat-centric states, requires canoes and kayaks over a certain size to be registered. The fees haven’t been raised since 2006.

Strommen said the money would be for operation and maintenance of the agency’s 1,700 public water accesses, along with boater safety programs and efforts to stop aquatic invasive species. “Part of the problem with not raising those (fees) is we haven’t had the dollars to really modernize and revamp those,” she said of the water accesses. 

Nisswa Rep. Josh Heintzeman, the top Republican on the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, said he disagrees with some aspects of the budget for natural resource financing. For instance, he wanted to direct more lottery money to parks and trails. Heintzeman also said a lot of the environmental spending in the larger omnibus bill was more a “want” than a “need” that could have been used for tax cuts.

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But he said it was a good thing that fishing licenses and other outdoor permits won’t be more expensive. And he acknowledged watercraft fees hadn’t been raised in nearly 20 years.

“Considering what had previously been in the bill, pretty happy,” Heintzeman said. “As much as I would like to delay that (watercraft fee hike), especially with the $17.5 billion surplus, I can understand that we’re kind of looking down the road.”

Strommen said the DNR push for higher fees isn’t over forever. “We will be back for those fees at the next opportunity because it just remains a significant piece of how DNR is funded,” Strommen said.

The same omnibus bill also contains spending and policy tied to the energy sector. Look for coverage later this week on that in MinnPost.

Here’s some of what else made it into environmental the bill:

Cumulative impacts

Lawmakers agreed on a measure that would make regulators take long-term health risks of pollution into account when issuing certain permits. It’s commonly referred to at the Capitol as “cumulative impacts.” House Democrats initially proposed a bill that would require the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to consider aggregate pollution when deciding whether to issue air and water permits in, or near, parts of the state defined as an environmental justice area.

The proposal was narrowed following pushback from legislators in Greater Minnesota, along with local officials and some business and labor interests who argued the bill was much too broad in scope and could harm economic development. 

What is expected to pass the Legislature is now limited to certain air permits required for new construction, facility expansion or the reissuance of a permit. The regulations also apply only in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area and the biggest cities in Greater Minnesota: Rochester and Duluth. And the MPCA commissioner will have more power to determine whether a “cumulative impacts analysis” is needed. The original bill was stricter in requiring such an analysis.

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Climate change and water Infrastructure

Lawmakers agreed to use $100 million in the two-year budget for a “resilient communities” grant program run by the MPCA that will dole out cash primarily meant to help local governments build stormwater and wastewater infrastructure that will be more resistant to the impacts of climate change. Gov. Tim Walz’s administration had asked for a bit more money but got most of its request.

Deer farm moratorium

The environment bill contains tough new regulations on deer farms in Minnesota that are meant to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease among wild herds. The restrictions include a ban on new white-tailed deer farms. Owners of these businesses have pushed back on the licensing ban, saying it will hobble an already declining industry. But DFL legislators contend the farms are too risky while the state tries to curb the fatal, contagious neurological affliction.

Carbon sequestration in grasslands, soil health and peatlands

Lawmakers approved a host of money aimed at carbon sequestration through the natural environment. That includes $10 million for enhancing prairies and grasslands and restoring wetlands on state-owned wildlife management areas. 

Legislators earmarked another $21 million to restore and enhance grasslands for climate purposes on land with conservation easements. The budget includes more than $21 million for “soil health activities” to boost water quality, soil productivity, climate change resiliency or sequester carbon. An additional $9 million would pay for buying conservation easements to restore and enhance peatlands for climate benefits, and $1.5 million for carbon storage in state-administered peatlands.

An upcoming ban on many products with PFAS

The legislation would ban starting in 2025 the sale or distribution of many products with intentionally-added chemicals known as PFAS which are linked to health issues such as certain cancers. The products include carpets, cleaning products, cookware, cosmetics, dental floss, menstruation products, ski wax, upholstered furniture and more.

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And by 2032, no product that intentionally contains PFAS could be sold in Minnesota unless state officials say its use is essential for the “health, safety or the functioning of society” and there are no reasonably available alternatives.

There was a high-profile campaign to crack down on PFAS at the Legislature this year, in part because of the lobbying efforts of Amara Strande, a 20-year-old who died of cancer in April that she believed was linked to the pollutants.

An agriculture bill already passed by lawmakers will direct the state to ban pesticides with intentionally-added PFAS by 2032, with some exemptions.

Response to emerald ash borer

The environmental deal includes $15.2 million for the state’s “ReLeaf” program to offer reforestation grants in areas harmed by emerald ash borer. The House proposed another $37 million for response to the beetle infestations that did not make it into the budget deal. But agreement includes $16.5 million to preserve biomass energy infrastructure in St. Paul for using wood impacted by emerald ash borer, and another $3 million was earmarked for a Shakopee biomass plant.