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Omnibus environment bill spares EQB, but makes significant changes

Interested parties pick up copies of the omnibus environment and natural resources bill during the March 23 meeting of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. The committee did a walk-through of the bill Thursday. Photo by Andrew VonBank
Interested parties pick up copies of the omnibus environment and natural resources bill during the March 23 meeting of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. The committee did a walk-through of the bill Thursday. Photo by Andrew VonBank

The 14-member board that helps oversee environmental permitting and regulatory compliance would survive under the provisions of an omnibus bill now under consideration, but its composition would change significantly, as would its authority.

The House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee began consideration of HF888 Thursday, immediately adopting a delete-all amendment by a 14-8 roll-call vote to the omnibus environment finance bill, before taking testimony and beginning debate. 

Sponsored by Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau), HF888, as amended, would appropriate money to the Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency, among others, for the upcoming biennium. It would also make a number of policy changes. The companion, SF723, is sponsored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) and awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee.

The direct appropriations in the amended 104-page bill include:

  • DNR - $547.2 million
  • PCA - $185.68 million
  • Explore Minnesota - $28.49 million
  • Board of Water and Soil Resources - $26.87 million
  • Minnesota Zoo - $17.82 million
  • Metropolitan Council - $17.08 million
  • Science Museum of MN - $2.15 million
  • Conservation Corps - $1.89 million
  • School Trust Administration - $1.1 million

Some of those amounts differ significantly from the funding recommendations made by Gov. Mark Dayton. The governor’s budget proposal for DNR has nearly $48 million more in direct appropriations and $16 million more for the PCA.


EQB discussion

Included in the bill’s policy provisions are several surrounding the Environmental Quality Board. They provoked a good deal of discussion Thursday morning before the committee recessed – it is expected to reconvene Thursday evening.

In late February, the committee approved a bill that would eliminate the EQB. Under the omnibus legislation, the board would remain – and receive more than $2 million for the biennium – but also undergo substantial change.

The bill would eliminate the governor’s representative on the board and expand the number of citizen appointees from five to eight. It would also remove the EQB’s authority to initiate interdepartmental investigations, review state agency programs that impact the environment, and review and report on proposed legislation relating to the environment.

WATCH Committee discussion of the omnibus environment finance bill 

Statutes requiring the board to cooperate with regional development commissions on some issues and allowing it to establish interdepartmental, or citizen, task forces or subcommittees would also be repealed.

Fabian said he has listened to complaints for the last five or six years from small communities and businesses struggling with permitting issues. He said he’d like the EQB to “focus like a laser beam” on remedying those concerns, and that the responsibilities being taken away in the bill could be handled by other government agencies.

“We are not eliminating the EQB, we are trying to reformulate what the EQB does,” Fabian said. “We have a tremendous concern here in the state of Minnesota, particularly in my caucus, with regards to environmental review and permitting, and I really want those issues addressed.”

But Rep. Clark Johnson (DFL-North Mankato) said there is value in the board having authority to initiate discussions, and questioned replacing citizen involvement with work done by others.

“Why not allow the citizens to have a voice through this board and initiate some of these activities,” Johnson said.

Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) expressed concern the board could still be eliminated when the omnibus bill is reconciled with the Senate’s version. He said the PCA Citizen’s Board was abolished in that way.

“I believe the other body’s bill eliminates the EQB,” Hansen said. “So it goes to conference committee and then it’s gone. That’s what we’re worried about.”


Funding challenges

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr was one of the few testifiers to speak during the morning meeting. He expressed concern the bill did not do enough to cover his agency’s operating expenses and said that layoffs and service reductions would result. The bill does include some, but not all, of the fee increases requested by the DNR to cover dedicated fund shortfalls over the next few years.


What else would the bill do?

HF888, as amended, also includes measures that would:

  • modify buffer laws in several ways including a change that 50-foot buffers would be needed on public waters classified as “shoreland,” while public waters without that classification would only need a 16.5-foot buffer, and moving the date when buffers must be in place along public waters and public ditches to November 2018;
  • make changes to the groundwater permitting process, including requiring the DNR to provide applicants, in some cases, all the information used when denying or restricting a permit, and providing an estimate of the economic impact on existing and future users before making changes under a groundwater management plan;
  • indemnify those who could be liable for cleanup costs of the Freeway Sanitary Landfill in Burnsville;
  • require money from the emissions violation settlement with Volkswagen to be specifically appropriated before it can be spent;
  • prohibit nighttime boaters from operating with red, green or blue exterior lights;
  • prohibit the DNR from adopting rules that further restrict the use of lead shot;
  • allow the DNR to release invasive carp back into the same water bodies where they are captured for research or control purposes;
  • prohibit harvesting of live mussels, but allow harvesting of mussel shells; and
  • allow hunters to use scopes on muzzleloaders during deer season.


What’s in the bill?

The following are selected bills that have been incorporate in part, or in whole, into the omnibus environment and natural resources finance bill:

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