Gov. Tim Walz signed into law Tuesday $102 million worth of clean water and natural resources projects, and he potentially resolved a lawsuit by environmental groups over what they said was a raid on a state conservation trust fund.
The projects, which include new and upgraded stormwater systems and expansions to nature centers and park space, were approved by the Legislature last year but would have been paid for largely through the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Eight conservation groups filed suit, arguing that it was a misuse of the fund, which was created by voters in 1988. They said that if lawmakers were allowed to tap it for stormwater and park projects, nothing would keep them from coming back to draw from it again.
The groups hailed Tuesday’s compromise as a victory for the protection of voter-dedicated funds.
“The lesson from today is let’s stick with the normal way we take care of funding these very worthy projects,” said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River, one of the groups that sued.
Clark said the environmental groups are still reviewing the new law with their lawyers to make sure it resolves all their issues.
While the bill won’t set a legal precedent over use of the trust fund, it sets a “powerful political one,” said Aaron Klemz, spokesman for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, another plaintiff.
“The really heartening thing is we had legislators on both sides of the aisle who thought this funding source wasn’t appropriate and worked to fix it,” Klemz said.
The new bonding package will provide more immediate funding for the projects, which might otherwise have been tied up by years of litigation.
Among the projects is a major hazardous waste cleanup at the old Waste Disposal Engineering Landfill in Andover, one of the state’s most toxic closed landfills. The package provides the final $10.3 million for a $22.3 million cleanup expected to be complete by the end of the year. A contractor will be digging out the old waste and contaminated soil at the defunct landfill, which is managed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), and haul it away for proper disposal or incineration.
“It’s about time,” said Andover Mayor Julie Trude, who has monitored the landfill’s status closely. “I’m glad the state is taking care of a state problem that happens to be located in my community.”
Senate Republicans had proposed funding that cleanup with money from the state’s Closed Landfill Investment Fund, but the MPCA opposed that. State law says the long-term fund isn’t supposed to be tapped until after 2020.
At the signing ceremony Tuesday, Walz said the old Andover landfill “kind of became the poster child” for the infrastructure projects that “got lost” in last year’s controversial funding.
Tuesday morning’s ceremony marked the first bills Walz has signed since taking office and included a measure that provides $13 million for the state’s troubled vehicle registration system and a new independent review of its problems. The law also directs a task force to issue recommendations for next steps in repairing the system by May 1.
The Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, known as MNLARS, has bedeviled Minnesotans and the local officials who run it and been a source of partisan debate for nearly two years.
“Minnesotans elected us to work across the aisle to better our state, and that’s exactly what we have done today,” said Walz, who took office in January. He was surrounded by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
“In May, this is what I want it to look like,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. He was referring to negotiations likely to take place between legislators and the governor at the end of the legislative session in about 10 weeks, which in recent years have devolved into nasty partisan brawls and work left undone.
“You have Democrats and Republicans, the governor, the speaker, myself and leaders from both bodies — both sides of the aisle are saying we got it done, we got it done on time and it’s something we all can be proud of. This is that first step,” Gazelka said.
Lawmakers and Walz are in the early stages of negotiating a two-year state budget that is expected to near $50 billion and has already revealed deep differences over taxes and spending.
Staff writer Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report.