Environment bill includes budget cuts, policy compromises

Posted at 7:18 PM on July 19, 2011 by Jon Gordon (0 Comments)
Filed under: Environment

from MPR News reporter Stephanie Hemphill:

Environmental groups says the environment budget bill negotiated between Governor Dayton and lawmakers weakens protections of natural resources and goes against voters' wishes for Legacy Amendment money.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's general fund takes a hit of 40-percent for the biennium. That's smaller than than the 66-percent that Republican legislators had originally proposed. But it's still enough to prompt environmental leaders -- such as the Minnesota Environmental Partnership's Steve Morse -- to charge negotiators with stepping over the constitutional line against substituting Legacy Amendment money for existing expenditures.

"When overall state funding is going up, the environment is getting cut, and that's contrary to what voters directed legislators to do just two and a half years ago with the Legacy Amendment," Morse said.

The general fund is a very small part of the MPCA's budget. The agency gets most of its money through permit fees and other income. Republicans point out the overall pollution control budget will rise by 1.5 percent. The chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, Bill Ingebrigtsen of (R-Alexandria) said the budget agreement doesn't include any improper substitutions, although some legislators would like to use Legacy money to plug budget holes.

"They would like to see that amendment fund some of these budgets but we cannot get into that; it just violates the Constitution," Ingebretsen said.

The DNR's general fund is cut by 11 percent; the Board of Water and Soil Resources, which helps farmers reduce erosion and pollution, is cut 10 percent. The Minnesota Conservation Corps, which works in state parks and other public lands, is cut by nearly one-third.

One DNR program that benefits from the budget agreement is forestry, which oversees public timber lands that private companies use for logging.

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce environmental policy director Tony Kwilas said his organization is happy about new money there.

"I think it will allow some more of the foresters up north to get out and be able to some more surveying of the land up north, and allow more land to be sold at auction so the timber producers can get in there, and that actually generates revenue for the state," Kwilas said.

The final bill also provides nearly $4 million over the next two years to study the impact of sulfate pollution on wild rice beds. The issue is controversial because taconite mines in northeastern Minnesota are having trouble meeting the current state standard. During the study, which will probably take at least two years, the MPCA will not be allowed to require any company to invest in expensive control equipment -- unless federal law requires it.

That deference to federal requirements is a sore spot for environmentalists. It crops up again in another provision that tells the MPCA it must only issue specific permits for feedlots "as required by federal law."

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership's Steve Morse says that ignores how highly Minnesotans value their clean water.

"Since when do we in Minnesota only do we do the same water protections as they do in Nebraska or Mississippi? They're saying, 'if the feds require it we'll do it, otherwise, don't,'" Morse said.

But environmental groups won on some issues. A moratorium on new rules on water quality was turned into a study of the issue. And the government can still study whether perfluorochemical pollution harm people.

Environment bill at a glance:

• Total funding: $238 million
• How it compares to conference committee bill: $36.5 million more
• How it compares to governor's proposal: $39 million less
• Water Quality: Requires a study of water quality laws instead of a two-year moratorium on making any new ones.
• Lake Pepin: Tells pollution control agency to reduce phosphorus levels only in the summer.
• Wild rice sulfate standard: Doesn't toughen standard, which some legislators wanted earlier in the session. Companies are not required to invest in sulfate-reducing equipment to meet state standard for probably another two years. Provides $4 million over biennium for research.
• Aquatic invasive species: Invests $5.5 million over biennium to develop best-management practices at boat landings.
• About $500,000 for bio-monitoring related to perfluorochemicals and mercury in Lake Superior.
• No money for Board of Water and Soil Resources' cost-sharing programs with counties on weed management and vegetation buffers.


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