2015 Legislative Session Report

Move MN Rally - Photo credit Joshua Houdek

Move MN Rally – Photo credit Joshua Houdek

By John Hottinger

Minnesota’s prospects for advancing environmental protections during the 2015 state legislative session were unfortunately predetermined last Election Day, in November of 2014. The old cliché that “elections matter” proved itself vividly this session, as environmental rollbacks and inaction on urgent funding for transit and transportation led an aggressive agenda for the new Republican House majority. The situation was compounded by the fact that a few DFL Senators in key positions joined House leadership in anti-environment efforts. In the process, they thwarted the goals of a majority of DFL Senators and the Governor.

In the regular legislative session from January through May, there were marked contrasts between the House and the Senate on many issues. The House, behind a united Republican majority, passed a series of bills to gut clean water and environmental standards, and a massive energy bill which only utility and oil companies could love. In response, concerned DFL Representatives from all over the state raised profound questions about the bills’ approaches and impacts – with veteran members and the newly-elected alike leading the charge. Their efforts helped raise the public’s consciousness, educate the media, and cast sunshine on the hidden, abusive dangers of the “dirty water bills,” regulatory dismantling and energy regression featured in the majority House agenda.

The attacks were especially troubling when one considers that clean water enjoys broad, bipartisan support across the state. According to a 2014 poll conducted on behalf of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, nearly 9 in 10 residents are concerned about water pollution in our lakes and rivers.

While bills passed in the Senate were less damaging, serious problems emerged when a minority of DFL Senators teamed with House leaders to pass legislation filled with special-interest and anti-environment provisions. Then, conference committees were appointed to resolve the differences between the bills passed in each house, with members handpicked to underrepresent environmental advocates. After weeks of back room negotiations, the bills unfortunately reflected those appointments when they emerged for a final vote – with many items passed in the final hours of session, without time for any real debate – and were sent to the Governor’s desk.

Gathering at Governor's Residence May 21 - Photo credit Joshua Houdek

Gathering at Governor’s Residence May 21 – Photo credit Joshua Houdek

As a result, the Sierra Club joined allies in asking Governor Dayton to veto the Agriculture & Environment omnibus budget bill, presenting our request at a successful public gathering at the Governor’s residence on May 21. The Agriculture and Environment legislation was one of three bills vetoed, leading to a Special Session.

While small improvements were made to the Agriculture & Environment bill, the Sierra Club and allies continued to vigorously oppose the version that was presented for a vote in the subsequent Special Session. When the legislature re-convened on June 12, the sustained outcry from concerned citizens resulted in a majority of DFL Senators attempting to remove the worst provisions of the bills, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. The final version of the Energy & Jobs Omnibus budget bill was also passed in Special Session. The North Star Chapter expressed our deep disappointment in a session that will be remembered for its unprecedented rollbacks of protections for clean water; missed opportunity to grow clean energy jobs and address climate disruption; and failure to address the state’s urgent need for a comprehensive transportation bill. “Minnesotans deserve and expect better from their elected officials, and will hold accountable those legislators who are responsible for endangering our clean water, communities and climate,“ said State Director Margaret Levin.

There were strong champions in both the House and Senate whose leadership prevented even worse outcomes – along with efforts by North Star lobbyists and staff, directed by our hard-working Legislative Committee and in partnership with many allied organizations. But in the end, the biggest heroes for North Star Sierra Club goals were our members and volunteers. Because of your support, the volume and strength of those voices — expressed through weekly “action nights” with volunteers making over thousands of phone calls to our members; via email alerts; and with members’ presence at lobby days and rallies throughout the session and leading up to the Special Session – led to marked improvements in the terrible prospects presented at the beginning of the session. See the chart below for details.

With your help, we will work to bolster state environmental leadership to make 2016 a year of improvements, not rollbacks, and to set the table for the next election. . . which will matter even more.

John Hottinger

John Hottinger

John Hottinger is the North Star Chapter’s legislative advocate for the 2015 session.

Sierra Club supported Final outcome
Increase the renewable energy standard and extends it to 2030 No final action taken; passed Senate committee
Dedicate funding for a modern, statewide transportation system, including for transit, bicycling, and walking options, and infrastructure repair No action
Create a riparian buffers program to require 50-foot buffers statewide Increased enforcement of existing waterway buffers requirements
Establish an energy optimization goal for energy saving projects No final action taken; passed Senate committee
Restore voting rights for individuals on probation or parole No action
Sierra Club opposed Final outcome
Require all environment and energy rules and standards to be approved by Legislature Stopped in regular session, but Legislature allowed to review MPCA plan to comply with the EPA Clean Power Plan (see below)
Exempt sulfide mining waste from solid waste rules Passed without improvements
Abolish the Citizens’ Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, established to ensure transparency and public input Passed without improvements
Repeal the water quality standard that protects wild rice lakes Wild rice sulfate standard suspended until new rulemaking completed
Require any MPCA plan to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan to be approved by the state legislature Improved: Legislature allowed to review, not approve
Weaken Minnesota’s effective net metering law for co-op and municipal utility customers Improved in special session: Provisions limited
Encourage reduced electric rates for some large corporations, shifting energy costs to small customers Improved in regular session: Scope limited to certain utilities and businesses
Weaken wetlands protections by altering the Wetlands Conservation Act and Board of Soil and Water procedures for determining wetland replacement standards Passed without improvements
Allow funding for deceptive labeling of pollinator-friendly plants; plants that are toxic to pollinators can be labelled “pollinator friendly” Passed without improvements
Weaken the nuisance liability standards for agricultural operations Stopped in regular session
Grant polluters amnesty from penalties and delays enforcement for companies that self-report violations of environmental regulations Improved in special session: Deferred enforcement time reduced and required advance notice to polluters shortened
Repeal the moratorium on new nuclear power plants Stopped in regular session
Bar the MPCA from providing enforceable policy and guidance to regulated parties Stopped in special session
Raid dedicated environmental funds for cleanup of old landfills Improved in special session: Repayment provision added
Break the compromise agreement among energy, agriculture, and environment stakeholders to establish a next-generation biofuel industry in Minnesota. Passed without improvements
Require legislative approval for certain water quality rules Stopped in regular session
Require expensive, time consuming external peer review of clean water rules Stopped in special session
Suspend enforcement of water quality rules in the Red River until 2025 Stopped in special session
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