By Justin Fay and Kara Josephson
On Friday, Republican leadership in the Minnesota Legislature announced an agreement on budget targets between the GOP-controlled House and GOP-controlled Senate. In a typical budget year, an agreement like this would constitute a meaningful step toward a final package to complete the Legislature’s work for the year. Unfortunately, the targets announced by Republican leaders remain quite far apart from the budget proposed by Governor Dayton earlier this year. And that’s good news, at least for the moment, because the budget proposed by the GOP would set Minnesota dangerously backwards on protecting our air, water and natural legacy.
While the legislative agreement includes modest new investments in several categories, it also imposes drastic and unnecessary cuts in a number of budget areas. Leaders have not released specific budget targets for Environment, Jobs, Transportation, and a number of others; instead lumping those agencies together in a single line item that includes more than $500 million in cuts, presumably to be spread among the various budget areas. Among the impacted agencies are the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), and others – irresponsible budgeting of historic proportions.
If the Republican leadership’s budget were to become law, it would severely undercut the ability of the State to protect air and water, process permits and environmental review in a timely and efficient manner, and provide adequate enforcement against polluters and those who violate air and water quality standards. For example, the proposed budget cuts would result in the Environmental Fund – MPCA’s largest funding source – operating in the red beginning in 2020 and into perpetuity. If a budget this extreme were allowed to become law, Minnesotans would be feeling the effects for years to come.
And this is all before we even consider the 61% cut being proposed to MPCA’s Federal grants by the Trump Administration.
While the budget looks grim for the environment, the numerous policy provisions being advanced in the Legislature also have devastating potential. A common theme? The weakening of enforcement and protections for our environment for the benefit of special business interests. For example, one provision allows polluters to write their own environmental impact statements. Another provision allows large industries to buy their way into an expedited permit. Yet another provision exempts cities that build new facilities from future updates to meet standards for clean water for 16 years. Another provision suspends water quality standards adopted between mid-2014 and mid-2019 if a facility would have to make updates to protect water quality; this would have the (presumably unintended) effect of making it impossible for 166 Minnesota cities to get permits for their wastewater treatment plants, according to the MPCA.
Many of the policy provisions seek to remove citizen input and local control, again, at the behest of special interests. Case in point: weakening environmental review standards for large feedlots by doubling the size a feedlot can be before environmental review is required. Environmental review is important because it allows rural neighbors to have a meaningful say in the process. Another provision would severely limit the opportunity for individuals to contest a permit to mine by only allowing property owners directly adjacent to the proposed mine to contest it. This creates an incredibly narrow standing and takes away the administrative appeal right for other impacted property owners, such those who may be downstream from a proposed project.
This is not by any means an exhaustive list of the legislative initiatives that would sacrifice or neglect the quality of Minnesota’s environment. Numerous rollbacks to the buffer law, gutting the Environmental Quality Board, prohibiting communities from adopting ordinances to reduce plastic bag waste…the list goes on and on.
Together, these numerous policy provisions and deep budget cuts will undoubtedly move Minnesota backwards.
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