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As the new Republican legislative majorities scramble to articulate their early-session priorities, one action item is almost ready for prime time: plans to address longstanding business about Minnesota's purportedly onerous permitting process.

Bipartisan agreement between GOP legislators and governor’s office will ease way on some measures

 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Senate Deputy Majority Leader and Jobs & Economic Growth Committee chair Geoff Michel is hopeful that legislators and the governor’s office can take bipartisan action on permitting reforms designed to improve the state’s business climate before they move on to the polarizing issue of the state’s $6.2 billion budget deficit. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

As the new Republican legislative majorities scramble to articulate their early-session priorities, one action item is almost ready for prime time: plans to address longstanding business about Minnesota’s purportedly onerous permitting process.

During the interregnum between the election and last week’s seating of the Legislature, incoming Republican leaders in the House and Senate talked with Gov. Mark Dayton about problems with the state’s permitting policies, and it appears there will be cooperation on some fronts in that effort. Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, who began working during the campaign to identify areas where agency jurisdictions overlap in the permitting process, will likely play an important role from the administration side.

Sen. Geoff Michel, the new chairman of the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Committee, said that the conversations with the DFL governor on environmental permit reform suggest it will be possible to pass mutually agreeable legislation early in the session. “I see items related to the economy and private jobs that we can work on even before we get to the budget,” Michel said.

Lawmakers’ main task this session is passing a budget that solves a projected $6.2 billion deficit for the next two-year budget cycle. But politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Michel and Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, are interested in expediting the permitting policy as a bipartisan sign of movement on the economy.

Michel said specifics such as selecting bill authors could be worked out by next week. He noted the legislative activity on permitting and regulatory relief will take place in multiple committees.

The issue of permitting timelines was frequently invoked on the campaign trail. Now that lawmakers are in session, some are already plumbing for more details on needed reforms. Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, was among those who pressed Minnesota Chamber of Commerce officials for specifics during a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.

“This is an issue that we’ve started to hear about over the last couple of years and I’m not sure how it’s snuck up on us,” Cohen said. “What I’m wondering is, what has been going wrong?”

By and large, the business community’s criticisms about the permitting process are not about stringent regulations but about what they call a confusing and tortuously slow process.Bill Blazar, senior vice president for public affairs at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, told the Senate jobs panel that the permitting process delays and potentially jeopardizes business projects. As an example, he cited a company from St. Peter that needed a permit from the state Department of Health for a stainless steel sink that was part of an office expansion. The business inquired about the status of the permit after some time had elapsed, only to be told its application was on hold because it was incomplete.

“Businesses don’t tell us that they think the standards are too high,” Blazar said.”What they tell us is that the process is too long and too unpredictable.

“That’s something we ought to be able to work on.”

Chamber President David Olson said officials also think the culture in the main environmental permitting agencies is not cooperative with businesses. The problem, Olson said, “is the tone and the customer service approach, not so much of the leadership, but of some of the rank-and-file employees of some of these agencies. We’d just like to work with them and say, ‘OK, it’s important that we have these businesses. Can we change up how we deal with them?'”

One specific proposal that is likely to surface would place deadlines for state agencies to act on environmental permits. Last session, lawmakers approved a bill that established a goal of 150 days for state Department of Agriculture regulators to act on permit requests. After the 2010 session, business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses said they want the same 150-day goal extended to the state Pollution Control Agency and the state Department of Natural Resources.

Another priority for the Chamber of Commerce this session is to have appeals of environmental review decisions start at the Minnesota Court of Appeals rather than at the lower district court level.

These proposals, while they haven’t appeared yet in bill form, will draw opposition from environmental and conservation groups, said Gary Botzek, lobbyist for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP).

“That [150-day proposal] will be controversial,” he noted. “We have to look reasonably at how many can be done in that time frame.”

Considering the wish among lawmakers to pursue policies related to job growth, MEP and its 80 affiliated environment/conservation groups are worried that important rules will be rolled back in the name of greater efficiency. These groups will push back against attempts to roll back certain parts of the state’s environmental policy regime – in particular, the standards spelled out in the 1970s-era Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, and statutory provisions that allow local governments to enact planning and zoning laws that are stricter than state regulations.

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