Gov. Mark Dayton today made perhaps the most difficult decision of his first months in office.
In a decision that disappointed many of his strongest supporters, the governor signed a bill designed to streamline the process of businesses looking to expand or building existing and new operations.
But the bill also included many provisions that environmentalists considered “onerous’’ and a rollback on Minnesota’s place as a national environmental leader.
While Dayton supporters were disappointed by his action, Republican legislative leaders were singing praises of the ability of the Republican majority and the DFL governor to “work together.’’
“The passage of this legislation shows we can work together to get the job done,’’ said House Speaker Kurt Zellers.
That statement seemed ironic on a day that Republican legislative leaders put up — and then voted down — a sham amendment that they said shows there’s no support for the governor to raise taxes in balancing the budget. (See related story.)
Surely, the Republican game-playing with his budget bill had to make Dayton’s decision to sign the “streamlining’’ bill all the more difficult.
Yet, in his letter to the chief Republican authors of the bill — Rep. Dan Fabian and Sen. Bill Ingebritgtsen — Dayton made few acknowledgements of concern about what many saw were weaknesses in the bill.
Dayton notes unnecessary delays
“We agree,’’ he wrote, “that too many possible business expansions have been delayed unnecessarily in recent years. Minnesota needs, as my Commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says, ‘permitting at the speed of commerce.’ ’’
Staffers had told environmentalists that Dayton had not made a decision on whether to sign or veto the legislation as late as this morning.
The bill hits Dayton square in the middle of his values.
On the one hand, he agrees with much of the bill: In fact, he issued executive orders that mimic much of the language of the bill. His orders and the bill would shorten the time it takes for a permit to go through processes.
But the bill also contains language that is strongly opposed by the very environmental organizations that support Dayton.
“An OK bill with very bad barnacles’’ is how Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, puts it.
Foes cite ‘the biggest barnacle’
The biggest barnacle of them all, he said, is a bill that would allow businesses to hire their own consultants to do environmental impact statements. Currently in Minnesota, it’s local government organizations or state agencies that hire the consultants who do those impact studies.
To environmentalists and good government types this change would codify the opportunity for conflict of interest.
Dayton barely acknowledged that concern. Instead, he said, the new process makes sense.
“I share the concern of some about assuring the accuracy and integrity of an Environmental Impact Statement or any other environmental assessment, which is contracted by the project proposer rather than the Responsible Government United. However, I also recognize the advantage of this change in reducing the time associated with an EIS.’’
Another provision of the bill also is troubling to its opponents. Those who would want to fight a permit in the courts would be required to go directly to the Minnesota Appeals Court, bypassing district courts. That’s a more expensive process and would prevent all but the wealthy from taking on court fights.
Dayton has faith in appeal process
But Dayton brushed off that concern, instead praising the integrity of the Court of Appeals.
“These high-level, three-judge panels can be relied upon to protect our citizens and our environment from any failures of the permitting process, while reducing considerably the time this process takes.’’
At a news conference this morning, opponents of the fast-tracked bill pleaded with Dayton to veto it.
So why wouldn’t he?
Go back to his values.
Since coming into office, Dayton has promoted the idea that he and Republican legislators must learn to get along.
No longer ‘a no-brainer’
Once upon a time, this bill would have been a no-brainer for Dayton, said environmental activist Julie Jansen.
In 1998, Dayton asked Jansen to be his running mate in a failed bid for governor. She had gained considerable attention as the person who had taken on the devastating pollution caused by large hog and cattle feedlot operations.
It took years of work and scores of studies before Jansen showed that the problems created by poorly managed large hog farms were more harmful than bad smells alone. Hydrogen sulfide, it finally was shown, did cause major health problems for those who lived near poorly-managed operations.
Would the Mark Dayton of 1998 have signed this bill?
“No way,’’ said Jansen.
She also said that she and the governor had been in Facebook communication over the bill in recent weeks. He had through negotiations with legislators been able to remove some of the more onerous legislation that would have lifted some of the hard-fought restrictions on feedlots, she said.
But there still is much that troubles Jansen and other environmentalists.
Morse described this bill as the “first step in the unraveling of the environmental foundation’’ that has been built up over the years.
He also said that recent polls commissioned by the partnership show that 81 percent of Minnesotans don’t want environmental law undermined in the state’s efforts to create jobs.
Republicans have countered that this bill, which was the first bill taken up by the House, is a job-creating, business-friendly bill.
“They have established a new truth,’’ said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. “The new truth they say is that Minnesota is ‘open for business’ and that Minnesota is ‘business-friendly.’ That assumes we have not always been business-friendly. We’ve educated our children and the work force, we’ve created a clean environment, we’ve supported the arts and made Minnesota a place where people want to work and do business.’’
But Zellers said this was, first and foremost, a jobs bill.
“Jobs are our top priority,’’ Zellers said. “We ned to remove obstacles in state government that provide more certainty and efficiency in a complex permitting process. Our economic recovery is bolstered by this reasonable regulatory reform. We thank Gov. Dayton for his support of this job critical legislation.’’
For his part, Morse had said at the morning news conference that if Dayton signed the bill it would show that environmentalists need to be more “pro-active’’ in reaching out to the governor and that “he needs to be more pro-active in reaching out to the people.’’
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.