The money has never ceased to flow from Minnesota’s lottery-backed Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund since its inception in the 1980s.
But it might this year.
Deep differences among state lawmakers over using the $1 billion trust fund to finance wastewater treatment projects may have killed this year’s $61 million package of environmental projects, throwing dozens of projects across the state into limbo.
The standoff resembles the controversy two years ago when environmental groups filed a lawsuit that accused Republican lawmakers of an unconstitutional raid on the environmental trust fund to pay for wastewater infrastructure projects typically paid for through bonding bills.
The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources — the body that recommends to the Legislature which projects should get money from the environmental trust fund — did not make its usual formal recommendations this year because wastewater treatment projects were added to the list. The projects were inserted last year by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, a commission member.
So Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, also a commission member, tried to forward legislation to fund the package without the wastewater projects.
On Tuesday, Hansen received a letter from Ingebrigtsen informing him that the Senate will not be appropriating money this year from the environmental fund.
“As stewards of the taxpayers it is financially prudent to allow that money to fall to the bottom line and be used next year when our state will most likely be facing a massive deficit,” Ingebrigtsen wrote. “Furthermore, as there were not official recommendations this year, there is less agreement and therefore less desire to appropriate the dollars.”
Tensions were high at Thursday’s meeting of the commission. Ingebrigtsen reiterated his support for spending $1.5 million for wastewater treatment upgrades in small, rural communities.
He also pointed the finger back at the commission for not making its funding recommendations.
“And to take the whole bill down and not approve over that is something that we all have to live with,” Ingebrigtsen told commission members. “To lay the blame on the Senate is totally out of line.”
In an interview, Hansen said he thinks Minnesotans expect lawmakers to do their jobs, “especially in a crisis.”
“I am hopeful the Senate GOP will reject failure and move forward toward problem-solving.”
Becca Nash, the commission’s director, said her inbox was overflowing with e-mails from concerned organizations.
“Some of these people, their livelihoods depend on these funds,” Nash said. “My concern right now is the uncertainty and wondering how to guide people on what to do.”
Among the projects that could lose funding: $1 million for ways to manage pollution from human waste applied to farm fields, $10 million for controlling invasive species such as zebra mussels, $440,000 for controlling white-nose syndrome in bats, and $575,000 for the second phase of the Voyageurs Wolf Project tracking their summer habits.
The University of Minnesota wildlife biologist running the wolf project, Joseph Bump, is deeply concerned. In a letter Bump sent to Ingebrigtsen Thursday, he said the Voyageurs Wolf Project “will not continue or recover without pending LCCMR support.”
“With LCCMR support we employ college students, hire technicians, rent boats and trucks, will buy a snowmobile, gas and lodging — all within Minnesota and mostly rural Minnesota,” Bump wrote.
He noted that 50,000 people follow the project on social media.