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Bonding bill: Will jobs push harm enviro funding?

Charley Shaw//October 22, 2009

Bonding bill: Will jobs push harm enviro funding?

Charley Shaw//October 22, 2009

Legislative leaders have signaled recently that job growth will be the central goal of the bonding bill in the 2010 legislative session. Those sentiments portend good things for remodeling buildings on college campuses and for bridge replacement projects.

But the focus on economic development concerns environment and conservation groups that also ask for hundreds of millions of dollars in bonding for things like acquiring prairie and wetlands.

Expect to see environmental groups get on board with the job-creation mantra in the next session.

Dave Dempsey, communications director for Minneapolis-based Conservation Minnesota, said many of his group’s bonding proposals for 2010 will also emphasize jobs.

“We do have to make the case,” said Dempsey. “The assumption that some lobbyists and legislators come to with environmental bonding is that it doesn’t have the same economic potential.”

John Tuma, a former GOP state representative and lobbyist for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, noted that environmental groups are accustomed to fighting to win bonding projects. “It’s always a challenge. …We always know we’re a little bit of the red-headed stepchild,” Tuma said.

Environmental groups want environmental projects to garner at least 22 percent of bonding bill funding. That’s the historical level of bonding for the environment going back to 1998, according to Conservation Minnesota.

Part of the pitch will be to push tourism and other economic benefits from investing in open spaces like parks and trails. Environmental groups will also advocate for environmentally friendly ways to do jobs-oriented bonding projects.

Large bonding bills are usually assembled and passed in even-numbered years. In 2008, legislators passed a $925 million bill of construction projects and land acquisitions. Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s line-item vetoes pared the bill down to $717 million. Next year’s bill is expected to hover around $1 billion, although it could be less if lawmakers deem the state’s debt capacity is stretched too thin.

In forums on job creation this summer and fall, legislators have emphasized bonding projects with so-called “shovel-ready” status. Projects like buying conservation land could be lower on the priority list because they don’t put as many people to work. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, told Capitol Report earlier this month that the 2010 bonding bill will have “maybe less” of an emphasis on land purchases.

Environmental groups in 2010 will try to present a different picture.

Tuma said some land-acquisition projects are labor-intensive. For example, some land purchases require restoration activities like reseeding the land. Other land purchases have potential value as sources of feed stocks to make ethanol, he said.

“We’re going to have to make a case that this is not just about buying a piece of land and that’s it. We have to make the case that this is about rural economies, it’s about jobs,” Tuma said.

Environmental groups will also advocate for the green aspects of projects that aren’t traditional environmental projects. Dempsey said his group is getting behind a “healthy amount” of transit projects, which could improve the business climate and reduce carbon emissions.

Waste-water treatment facilities are also a significant part of the bonding bill’s environmental component. Businesses often can’t locate in particular locales if they violate standards for water pollution, Tuma said. Therefore, he added, projects like waste-water treatment plants enhance the state’s economic competitiveness.

Environment and conservation groups have other areas to look for money for land acquisition other than the state’s capital budget. Thirty-three percent, or about $75 million, of the Legacy dedicated sales tax dollars that were approved by Minnesota voters in 2008 go to habitat. The new Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council recommends Legacy projects that benefit habitat for hunting, fishing and wildlife.

The Lessard-Sams money, however, isn’t supposed to “supplant” general fund spending. Offsetting bonding dollars with the Legacy money is a violation of the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of the sales tax increase that approved by Minnesota voters in the 2008 general election.

“We don’t see the Constitution making a distinction between bonding and general fund support,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey’s group follows lawmakers spending decisions on the new dedicated funding. (Conservation Minnesota provides information online at Dempsey said lawmakers can make cuts to environmental funding. But lawmakers need to cut state spending evenly across the budget.

“They need to be proportional to other cuts to other state spending,” Dempsey said.

Conservation Minnesota next Monday plans to release is scorecard of legislators’ votes on the environment during the 2009 legislative session.

The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) is another alternative to the bonding bill. The LCCMR recommends environmental projects that are paid by Minnesota Lottery proceeds.

The LCCMR’s roughly $25 million in annual projects, however, are often steered to research projects rather than buying land.

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