“The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.”
Gaylord Nelson first uttered those bits of wisdom more than 40 years ago at the dawn of environmental consciousness. It was the Wisconsin senator’s way of reminding his fellow politicians about the interrelated nature of economics, the environment, demographics, health, land use, transportation and energy, segments that were (and still are) parts of a single thread.
Minnesota responded to this idea in 1973 by launching the Environmental Quality Board. The EQB was envisioned as an independent, nonpartisan arm of state government that would investigate issues that overlapped the purview of regular departments. The intention was to take a longer, wider view, thereby guiding the state toward wiser policy decisions. Possible intertwined topics laid out in the founding legislation included demographic trends, settlement patterns, air and water quality, transportation needs and utility corridors. In today’s parlance, the EQB was designed to help make the state sustainable, smart and competitive.
It never really worked out. If the agency reached a peak, it was in the 1980s and ’90s, when its research led to better protection from pesticides for farm drinking-water supplies and new building practices and codes that cities now routinely describe as “green.” But it took a pass in 1998 on what’s now called climate change, the alarming rise in atmospheric carbon that scientists have been tracking since the 1950s.
By the 2000s, a number of factors — including interagency turf battles, a shift in political ideology and a series of budget crises — led to the EQB’s dilution and the breakup of its parent agency, Minnesota Planning. Legislative leaders at the time went so far as to describe planning as a luxury that the state could no longer afford. Some even argued that planning, while fine for individuals and private companies, was an overreach for government.
Actually, planning’s value is highest in moments of fiscal crisis. And responsible governments always strive to anticipate complex problems. Indeed, the best governments use proactive investigations (planning) to drive efficient responses.
Fortunately that view is again on the upswing, and the EQB, while still on life support, shows signs of resuscitation. Gov. Mark Dayton has challenged the agency to prove its potential. The Legislature last month increased the agency’s tiny budget from $150,000 to, effectively, more than $700,000. While its full-time staff remains at two (down from 30), there’s a move afoot to hire a full-time director and relaunch the EQB (perhaps by another name) as an independent, nonpartisan investigator of cross-jurisdictional problems.
Climate change and water management are likely targets, each topic having been drawn from a series of well-attended listening sessions held around the state last fall and an environmental “congress” held in March. Minnesotans are apparently curious about how the state intends to meet its ambitious greenhouse gas targets (reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050). And they would like assurance that the state’s top competitive asset (water) can be protected and improved, both in quantity and quality.
Those issues pose multidimensional challenges that are central to Minnesota’s prospects for economic growth and quality of life in the coming decades. A truly independent evaluation and road map would greatly benefit policymakers, especially in a sharply partisan world that seems to run on short-term thinking and to value spin over facts.
New York, Maryland, Arizona and Massachusetts are among the states trying to overcome all of that by taking a more strategic approach. Whether a Minnesota agency could become a reliable custodian of the facts, and whether those facts could drive sensible, effective, efficient policies, might be a long shot given today’s political realities. But this state is a more thoughtful, mature, collaborative place than it was a decade ago. Maybe an EQB revival is worth a try.