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How far are GOP legislators willing to go to stop Walz’s ‘Clean Cars’ rules?

While Republicans have walked back from their demand that the state kill the new auto emissions standards, they now insist that a two-year delay in implementing them is key to any budget deal.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka told reporters the California standards are a big issue for the GOP, and compared their actions to Democrats’ insistence on passing new police accountability measures over Republican opposition after a former Brooklyn Center officer shot and killed Daunte Wright last month.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature have opposed Gov. Tim Walz’s effort to adopt California’s auto emissions standards since Walz began pushing for the vehicle rules in 2019. 

But while the GOP has stymied most of Walz’s climate change agenda at the Capitol, the governor’s “Clean Cars” regulations are something Republicans haven’t been able to stop. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is pursuing the California standards unilaterally, a power granted to them in anti-pollution law by past Legislatures and affirmed by an administrative law judge.

As legislators hash out a two-year budget, however, the Republican-majority Senate rolled out a new tactic last week: pledging to shut down state funding for Minnesota’s environmental agencies and programs — including state parks — unless Walz drops the emissions rules.

The threat marked a serious escalation for the GOP, throwing a new wrinkle in budget negotiations and signaling the vehicle rules were a significant priority. But while Republicans quickly walked back their demand to drop the rules, they now insist that a two-year delay in implementing them is key to a budget deal.

Opposing ‘Clean Cars’

Under federal clean air laws, states can choose to follow national rules for tailpipe emissions or adopt standards written by California, which has a special waiver to set tougher regulations.

Under the Trump administration, which aimed to roll back the pollution rules, Walz in 2019 announced Minnesota would adopt the California standards. That includes rules for low-emission vehicles (LEV), which require auto manufacturers to create cars that pollute less; and regulations for zero-emission vehicles (ZEV), which make auto manufacturers provide more electric, plug-in hybrid or hydrogen-powered cars for sale.

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Washington, D.C., and 14 states outside of California have the LEV standards, while 12 have the ZEV rules. Minnesota would be the first in the Midwest to adopt either.

Walz and many fellow Democrats say the standards are crucial to bringing more electric vehicle options to Minnesota to grow the limited market for EVs. More EVs would also help slash carbon emissions and other pollutants, bringing Minnesota closer to its goals for reduction in greenhouse gases. The transportation sector is currently the top source of carbon emissions in the state.

But Republicans, and a few Democrats, have argued against the vehicle standards, saying electric cars are more expensive to buy, even if they save money in fuel and maintenance costs over time. Opponents of the standards also say the regulations would be costly and difficult for auto dealers and make Minnesota stand out from neighboring states. 

A report from Administrative Law Judge Jessica Palmer-Denig last week determining MPCA has authority to move ahead without the Legislature noted broad opposition to the Clean Cars rules in rural areas and among interest groups with ties to Greater Minnesota, where the vast majority of Republican senators come from. 

In the ALJ report, associations for wheat farmers, truckers, cattlemen, hemp growers, and the biofuels industry all criticized Walz’s plan. Many were concerned the vehicle standards would be expanded to regulate diesel-powered vehicles. For instance, the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association said any effort to ban or limit diesel-fueled vehicles would “endanger the food supply chain and Minnesota’s ability to feed the world,” the report says. (The rule does not regulate heavy-duty vehicles or ban diesel vehicles, and if California adopts such a standard Minnesota wouldn’t automatically have to follow it.)

The Minnesota Biofuels Association, the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the Minnesota Farm Bureau all told Palmer-Denig they had concerns the rules don’t properly take biofuels into account, or could eventually set Minnesota on a path that would eliminate the need for biofuels altogether.

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Palmer-Denig also noted some in Greater Minnesota support the Clean Cars rules, such as an auto dealer in Roseau County, who said customers have been requesting EV options and he couldn’t wait to sell them.

Still, Senate Republicans have repeatedly called in the MPCA to hearings and asked the agency to kick the decision to the Legislature. The MPCA declined, saying it had power under state law to adopt the standards unless the Legislature voted otherwise. That’s not likely to happen because Democrats hold a majority in the House and Walz can veto legislation.

Republicans pledge to hold up environmental budget

Last week, the GOP escalated the political fight. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a Republican from Alexandria who chairs the Senate’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, said the GOP wouldn’t agree to any environmental budget that doesn’t stop the California emission standards. That would force state parks to shut down after June 30, when the fiscal year ends, as well as a plethora of environmental programs and state agency work, if the DFL didn’t comply.

The regular legislative session is over May 17, but lawmakers are likely to return for a special session in June.

State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen
State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen
“We are an outlier,” Ingebrigtsen said at the time. “We’re the only ones in the Midwest that’s moving forward with this. It’s very maddening for me and I think it is for a lot of folks.”

The GOP softened its position quickly, however. That same day, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, made a broad offer on the state budget to DFLers that included only a two-year delay to the cars rules.

Two days later, Ingebrigtsen also offered a two-year moratorium to House DFLers in a joint committee that is negotiating environmental budgets and policy. Ingebrigtsen has stuck to that since, pitching it as a middle-ground compromise.

Democrats have balked at the idea. A two-year delay would mean the MPCA has to start its rulemaking process over again, according to an agency spokesman, meaning the delay would likely be more than two years. And since the existing rules won’t take effect until 2024 (vehicle model year 2025), that would push off the rules until even later. 

“That’s a long, essentially, six years where there would be no action on protecting Minnesotans’ air quality and trying to address the crisis of climate change,” said state Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul DFLer who is Ingebrigtsen’s House counterpart in negotiations.

For Walz and House Democrats, the auto emissions standards are one of the few major environmental initiatives they can accomplish. Republicans have turned down other legislation, such as DFL plans to make the power grid carbon-free by 2050 or earlier.

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Hansen called the GOP actions on Clean Cars “hostage-taking” that would shut down not just parks and agency work, but hold up money for the Minnesota Zoo, the Science Museum of Minnesota and potentially lottery money that funds environmental spending.

State Rep. Rick Hansen
Jon Severson, a lobbyist for the Science Museum, told the joint committee Thursday the museum would “likely be looking at reductions in program and education staff.”

“It really at this point robs us from the opportunity to really look at the plan for bringing folks back and expanding our hours,” he said.

Is the GOP already backing down?

On Wednesday, Gazelka told reporters the California standards are a big issue for the GOP, and compared their actions to Democrats’ insistence on passing new police accountability measures over Republican opposition after a former Brooklyn Center officer shot and killed Daunte Wright last month.

Gazelka also said Ingebrigtsen is “very passionate” about stopping or delaying the California emission standards. But he appeared to distance himself from his colleague’s hard-line stance. “That’s where he was, but in the end we’ve got to figure out how to work our way through,” Gazelka said.

Some top Democrats appeared skeptical the car standards were truly a make-or-break issue for the GOP. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, told reporters Senate Republicans may be firm in their stance against new taxes but he said he isn’t “sure what issues Senate Republicans would shut down state government over — if they really want to close parks over Clean Cars.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the car standards are a “topic of conversation in settlement negotiations,” but just one of many “conservative ideology driven” things the GOP wants that she said are unlikely to happen.

Ingebrigtsen declined to comment on the issue as he walked off the Senate floor Thursday after an unrelated vote. But in the House and Senate conference committee Thursday, Ingebrigtsen said he hadn’t given up his demands for a two-year delay.

“I think that’s a real reasonable, real cheap way of keeping these functions open for the state,” he said. “There seems to be some confusion out there — whether it’s Facebook land or wherever it is — that the Senate is giving up their proposal for California emissions. There’s nothing further from the truth.”

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Gazelka also broached the topic again Thursday, appearing to favor parks funding and disagree with those who would hold up budgets for a specific policy. The majority leader noted courts previously could order essential services to continue during a government shutdown. But that changed after a 2017 state Supreme Court decision.

If there’s a shutdown, “now it’s truly resources aren’t going out to a lot of different people from nursing homes to state parks,” Gazelka said. “We don’t need to” have a shutdown, he continued.

“I think I’ve probably had five or six different groups, both sides of the aisle, say, ‘You should shut down the government if you don’t get this or that,’ and we just can’t do that,” Gazelka said. “We want to open up Minnesota, we don’t want to close it down.”