Welcome to MCEA’s “Live from the Legislature” Newsletter!
In this edition of Live from the Legislature:
Where we are with less than two weeks left
COVID-19 turns surplus into projected Budget Deficit
TCE Ban: Passed in the Senate, onto the House
Senate bill includes environmental rollbacks
House Environment Omnibus Bill
Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund bill stuck, with $60 million in projects held up
Bonding bill with water infrastructure package at risk
Over the last month, the Minnesota Legislature adjusted to working remotely, a task that has never been attempted before the current pandemic crisis. At the start of the pandemic, the legislature announced they would be operating in a more limited capacity this session, focusing on three “buckets” of legislation. These buckets included emergency COVID-19 related legislation, work that is critical for this session, like a bonding bill to fund important infrastructure projects, and legislation that has bipartisan support.
In the last few weeks, the legislature seems to be back to “normal” -- as normal as they can operate while working remotely. Work has shifted from primarily focusing on COVID-19 relief, to working on other legislation that was introduced prior to the start of the pandemic. Much of this falls into the category of the “third bucket,” as in, legislation that has bipartisan support. However, some legislation is being discussed that is neither critical, nor bipartisan, and is heating up as the legislature has a mere two weeks until the constitutionally mandated end of session. To further complicate matters, on Tuesday, the state announced its updated budget numbers in light of COVID-19 and projected a budget deficit of $2.42 billion.
There is a strong likelihood that there will be a special session that will call the legislature back in June to address COVID-19 needs. If the legislature does not agree on a bonding bill, supplemental budget, and other key priorities by May 18, they very well may end up finishing their business during a special session in June or later this year.
Projected Budget Deficit Balloons in Weeks
Historically, Minnesota state government releases its full budget forecast in February, and then readjusts it in November. However, due to the unexpected economic consequences of COVID-19 in recent months, Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) released an emergency budget update on Tuesday, and projected a $2.42 billion budget deficit. This reflects an almost $4 billion reversal from February’s $1.5 billion surplus. Thanks to responsible budgeting, our state has $2.36 billion in its rainy day savings account, but will likely need additional federal aid to provide adequate resources and economic security to Minnesotans.
The Minnesota Senate passes SF 4073 banning the use of toxic TCE
After intense and lengthy negotiations between the Senate and House bill authors, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, industry, and the White Bear Area Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group, a bill to phase out toxic Trichloroethylene (TCE) is one step closer to becoming law. If passed, Minnesota would be the first state to phase out this dangerous chemical. On April 30th, Sen. Roger Chamberlain's bill passed the Senate floor with overwhelming bipartisan support on a 66-1 vote. Today, the House Ways and Means Committee sent an identical bill authored by Rep. Ami Wazlawik to the House floor on an unanimous 24-0 vote. Just one stop left!
Thank you to everyone that responded to our action alert to pressure legislators to act on TCE. Your voice matters!
Senate Bill would rollback environmental standards, but our supporters respond!
Last week, the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee considered SF 4499, the committee’s omnibus bill, which includes several troubling provisions, many of which MCEA publicly testified against. The bill would roll back environmental protections, restrict the MPCA in its ability to keep industry accountable on pollution, and make cuts to critical environmental projects. See our written testimony against the provisions we oppose here.
Unfortunately, the bill passed the committee on a 10-2 vote, with DFL Senators Simonson, Bakk, and Tomassoni joining GOP members in supporting the bill, and was sent straight to the Senate floor. It hasn't been scheduled for a vote yet, but it could happen at any time.
House Environment Omnibus Bill In stark contrast to the Senate, the House Environment & Natural Resources Committee passed its omnibus bill, that does not include any environmental rollbacks or other concerning provisions. MCEA analyzed each section of the bill, and determined a “support” or “neutral” position on each section. There is nothing in the House bill that we oppose.
Examples of provisions in the House bill that we support include the following:
Funding assistance to help businesses transition out of using TCE
Phase out of TCE, the same language as the Senate bill that passed the floor
Creating a soil and water conservation fund
Requiring non-toxic shot in small game hunting in certain wildlife management areas
2020 scientific research and habitat protection projects at risk from Senate block
On April 21, Chair of the Senate Environment Finance Committee Bill Ingebrigtsen sent this letter to the House Environment & Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Rick Hansen, informing him that the Senate does not intend to take up a bill to appropriate money from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF) this year. He referenced the impending deficit in his letter, but it has become clear during committee hearings that the reason for the stand-off is the Senate’s desired wastewater treatment grant appropriation that was not included in the House version.
The constitutional language in the ENRTF allows for loans to be given for wastewater treatment out of the fund, but not grants. Why? Because the need for state spending on wastewater treatment is so vast that it would completely empty this fund, which Minnesota voters set aside for a variety of natural resources projects.
MCEA successfully defended this last year, protecting over $167 million in trust fund revenue from being raided for that purpose. MCEA supports funding wastewater treatment infrastructure, but through the traditional ways Minnesota has done so. For example, we strongly support Gov. Walz's proposal for nearly $300 million in general obligation bonding to address this need. More details on this proposal are below.
Despite all this, again this year several LCCMR members voted to include a $1.5 million grant for wastewater treatment, a recommendation that did not gain enough support to become a formal recommendation. MCEA supports the House ENRTF bill, which omits this.
Dozens of projects that employ hundreds of people across the state hang in the balance. In all, over $60 million in vetted, shovel-ready projects that will benefit our state, enhance our natural resources, and employ over 250 people are at risk.
Some of the projects at risk of not being funded include:
Critical research to determine if COVID-19 can be spread through wastewater systems
$900,000 for pollinator habitat through an expanded “Lawns to Legumes” program
Research into algae blooms in pristine lakes and ways to stop didymo (“rock snot”) from taking over rivers and streams on the North Shore of Lake Superior
Programs to connect young people to environmental research and outdoor recreation opportunities
A program to reduce food waste and connect local businesses with needy families so that food doesn’t get thrown in the trash
Bonding bill to invest in Minnesota water infrastructure and other needs at risk
One of the critical tasks of the legislature this session was to create and pass a bipartisan bonding bill that invests in infrastructure throughout our state. Funding bonding projects will be even more important now to help recover economic loss after the pandemic, as it will be responsible for investing in essential jobs across the state.
MCEA is part of a broad group of organizations that support Governor Walz’s proposal to pass a comprehensive capital investment package that includes at least $300 million in water infrastructure bonding to replace and improve aging infrastructure and upgrade water treatment facilities. These shovel-ready projects will support jobs in construction, engineering, manufacturing and other fields, while also improving the quality of life in the communities they serve. Two of the largest initiatives on tap are $100 million for the Water Infrastructure Fund, which provides supplemental assistance grants to help communities build wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects, and $75 million for the Point Source Implementation Grants program, which provides grants to help communities upgrade wastewater, stormwater, and drinking water treatment projects to meet water quality goals.
The likelihood of a bipartisan bonding package coming together in the next few weeks remains uncertain. On Saturday, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said his caucus would block passage of a bonding bill until Gov. Walz ends the peacetime state of emergency related to COVID-19 response measures. Click here to learn more.
With less than two weeks left until the constitutionally mandated end of session on May 18th, MCEA is playing our role of environmental watchdog at the Legislature. This poses extra challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, as both the Minnesota Legislature and MCEA do this work remotely. Despite the last two unprecedented months, we continue to be your voice at the Capitol, on Zoom and on the phones, instead of the hearing rooms and hallways.
This has made your calls and emails to legislators even more important than they would usually be. Thanks to all of you for participating in our asks for action and involvement, and for your continued support, we couldn’t do our work without you!
If you enjoyed this edition, please forward it to your friends and family to help keep them informed about critical environmental issues at the Capitol.