Republican legislators are trying to reshape environmental protection in Minnesota, voting to make permitting cheaper for industries and cities by lightening regulations.
While trimming budgets at state environmental agencies, the Republican-led House and Senate have also packed bills with far-reaching policy changes that environmental advocates say would curtail state government's ability to protect air, water and land. The Senate was poised late Wednesday to pass its package of environment-geared spending and policy initiatives, and the House will take up a similar measure Thursday.
For Republican lawmakers, these changes are what they say their constituents want.
"I hear from cities, counties and businesses that environmental review and permitting is at times extremely complicated, extremely time consuming and extremely expensive," said Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, chairman of the House Environment Committee. "If you paid attention to the election in 2016, this is the kind of thing people are upset with."
The environmental movement and its allies in St. Paul are alarmed at the breadth of the proposed changes. Magnifying their concern are similar actions from the White House, including President Donald Trump's executive order this week to scrap the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, went so far as to strip his name from the major House environment bill this week. He called it a giveaway to narrow interests that want to impede the vigorous enforcement of environmental law.
"The people of Minnesota don't want to cut programs for outdoor recreation or that keep our water and air clean. I cannot lend my name to such a bill any longer," Hansen said in a statement announcing his opposition.
Both the House and Senate would cut the requests of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton for agencies like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources and Board of Soil and Water Resources.
"We think there might be some spending that might be duplicative. We're forcing that issue a little bit, and we hope they do come to the table," said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee.
Even more consequential for Dayton, the bills would delay implementation of one of his cherished accomplishments — mandatory buffers around public waterways to protect them from fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants.
It is a signature piece of what has become an increasingly important aspect of Dayton's legacy — leaving the state's waters in better shape than he found them. Dayton was moved on the issue after seeing a 2015 government report that detailed that half the lakes and streams in southern Minnesota are too polluted for safe swimming or fishing.
In addition to pushing off the implementation of the law for a year — until just before the 2018 election — another measure would prevent the buffer law from being enforced unless state or federal government provides 100 percent of the cost to the landowner to build the buffers.
Dayton, who negotiated the buffer law with House Republicans in 2015 and revisions to it last year, said he's not open to any further scaling back or delays.
"Not negotiable," Dayton said at a news conference last week. "I'll veto any bill that has any gutting or delay in the buffers" law, he said.
For Fabian and Republicans in the Legislature — especially lawmakers who represent farm country — Dayton's intransigence is unfathomable.
"This is the No. 1 issue for a lot of people," Fabian said, noting that four of his local county boards passed resolutions opposing the current implementation of the law.
"It's a serious issue in rural Minnesota, and with all due respect to Gov. Dayton, I don't think he's been adjusting to concerns and issues of people out there who have their boots on the ground," Fabian said.
Buffers are just one way Republican lawmakers and their allies in business and among leaders of some small, outstate Minnesota cities want to lighten the regulatory burden.
One measure would allow cities facing tougher clean water standards for their sewer plants to appeal to an administrative law judge for a review outside the purview of regulators. This arcane proposal — one of several related to clean water rules — would open the agency to expensive litigation and politicize science and data, said John Linc Stine, commissioner of the Pollution Control Agency.
"The point is, water quality standards are not political. They're science. We believe it's prudent for the science to be scientific. Not legislative," Stine said.
Fabian said unreasonable regulations on sewage plants, for instance, trickle down to local property taxpayers. "When the costs go up at the local level for a city, how do they recover those costs?" he asked.
Another measure would allow challenges to the draft list of dirty waters, whereas before only the final list could be challenged. Stine said this is another attempt to obstruct the agency as it attempts to clean Minnesota waterways.
A Senate provision would suspend all water quality standards adopted after July 2014 until July 1, 2019.
The Legislature would also indemnify — meaning free them from potential lawsuits — all the parties that contributed to the Freeway Landfill, which is now a federal Superfund site and an ongoing litigation headache for environmental regulators trying to protect the nearby Minnesota River and a water supply.
Republican lawmakers are also focused on cutting budgets wherever possible to allow more funding for key priorities like K-12 education, roads and bridges, a big subsidy for health insurers and tax cuts.
State funding for the Pollution Control Agency budget, which includes money from numerous sources, would decline from $415 million in the current two-year budget cycle to $397 million in the House spending plan, and $393 million in the Senate, according to the agency. This would require the agency to leave open 70 positions out of about 900, Stine said. The Department of Natural Resources would make do with at least 100 fewer workers in enforcement, parks and trails, fish and wildlife and the rest of its sprawling jurisdiction, according to Commissioner Tom Landwehr.
Dayton's differing principles on many environmental matters means Republicans likely won't be able to fulfill this entire agenda, but the governor may be forced to compromise on some GOP priorities.
Fabian questioned whether legislators are compelled to constantly fulfill the spending demands of state agencies. "Sometimes I feel like whether we have a $42 billion budget, or a $44 billion budget or a $55 billion budget, there probably won't be enough," he said.