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Environment bill reflects ‘priorities’

Published (4/1/2011)
By Sue Hegarty
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The omnibus environment, energy and natural resources finance bill passed 72-57 by the House March 29 includes General Fund reductions to environmental agencies and doesn’t allow fees to increase in dedicated funds, which DFLers said would be the same as raising taxes.

“In these tough times, this is a budget that brings forth the priorities of the Legislature —living within our means,” said Committee Chairman Denny McNamara (R-Hastings), the sponsor of HF1010.

One of these priorities includes shifting funds from some of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources recommended projects to emerging issues, such as invasive species, chronic wasting disease and a new scientific study of the effects of sulfates on wild rice.

The Senate amended the bill before passing it 36-28 March 31. A conference committee is expected to work out the differences. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) is the Senate sponsor.

Overall, the bill would allocate

$195.7 million from the General Fund for the environment, including the Department of Natural Resources, Pollution Control Agency, Board of Water and Soil Resources, Public Utilities Commission, parks and zoos. It’s about $37 million less than the governor’s recommended budget.

An amendment successfully offered by Rep. Tom Hackbarth (R-Cedar) stripped the bill of a provision to harvest black walnut timber in two state parks and use the money to help operate the parks. DNR officials have said budget cuts could result in up to 20 state park closings. Hackbarth called the DNR’s assertion a “threat.”

McNamara said more discussion is needed about the future of two state forest nurseries that have been operating at a loss and compete with the private sector. Although the House version does not include a provision to close the nurseries, the Senate’s does, said Rep. Bill Hilty (DFL-Finlayson). Hilty’s amendment to place a moratorium on the sale of state forest nurseries failed.

A bill highlight is bipartisan support for a new scientific study on the effect of sulfates in wild rice waters. A 70-year-old study helped establish the current PCA standard to not exceed 10 milligrams of sulfate per liter of water. Wastewater treatment plants and mining operations are believed to contribute to higher-than-normal sulfate levels in rivers, lakes and streams where wild rice naturally grows. The proposed study is expected to take up to two years to complete.

The controversy centers on whether to raise the current PCA standard from 10 to 50 milligrams per liter during the interim period. During committee hearings, a 250-milligram standard was proposed. Rep. David Dill (DFL-Crane Lake) succeeded in amending the standard to 50 as a compromise. He said he now supports keeping the standard at 10.

There is also bipartisan support to set aside funds so the DNR can properly manage newly acquired land. Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) suggests that LCCMR environmental trust fund dollars kick-start a new land management account, which would include paying counties a payment in lieu of property taxes, commonly called PILT.

Although legislators support setting aside funds to manage land acquired by the DNR, some questioned using the trust fund to pay PILT. The fund is primarily state lottery receipts.

“I have two concerns. One is telling Minnesotans this money can pay PILT. … We don’t have any basis for believing that, either financially or constitutionally,” said Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls).

Minority members also criticized how environmental trust fund projects were removed from a previously approved LCCMR list and new projects inserted in their place. Several attempts to reinstate projects failed. Members also accused Republicans of cutting General Fund support for invasive species and supplanting those cuts with trust fund appropriations.

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