Although legislative leaders appear to be hastening to finish the 2012 session early, environment chairs in both chambers still have a number of policy issues to wrestle with before their work is done.
Earlier this month the Senate passed its omnibus policy bill. Last Friday the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed its own bill, which differs substantially from the Senate version. The House bill was scheduled for a hearing in the Government Operations Committee after press time.
The centerpiece of both the House and Senate policy bills is the ongoing fight against the encroachment of aquatic invasive species in the state.
They establish a 21-day waiting period before a person can move a boat-lift, raft or dock to another body of water. They also establish a system of mandatory checks of watercraft before they are let onto the water. As the threat of Asian carp gaining entry to the state’s waters grows more dangerous, House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Chairman Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said the reaction to the issue has generated bipartisan responses from Republicans who control the Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
“The Senate, House, governor, Democrats and Republicans all want to really raise the bar in dealing with this issue,” McNamara said. “We have some differences. I think in the end we’re probably going to take the best of all of them.”
Chambers differ on rules, penalties
The differences between the House and Senate concern fines and the extent to which the 21-day rule should be implemented on the state’s waters.
In particular there are differences concerning civil penalties for people who place boats with invasive species into invasive species-free waters. While both bills double the fines for repeat offenders, the House has opted not to increase the $500 fine on first offenders. During the course of the debate, some House members have been concerned that the fines were more akin to fees. But Senate Environment and Natural Resources Chairman Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, a former sheriff, is adamant that they are fines.
“If you don’t pay attention to it, then you need to be reminded very strongly, and that’s usually in the pocketbook and it does work,” Ingebrigtsen said.
The Senate bill is also more limited with respect to the number of lakes affected by the 21-day rule.
In a move that has drawn criticism from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Senate bill only requires the 21-day wait for boat docks, lifts and rafts that are taken from waters already known to be infested with zebra mussels.
“We have a registered bunch of lakes in Minnesota that are deemed contaminated with zebra mussels,” Ingebrigtsen said. “We think that’s a reasonable approach without tying up everybody for 21 days.”
But Bob Meier, a legislative liaison for the DNR, said the limitation would make the law difficult to fully deal with aquatic invasive species.
“We want to make a blanket across the state for these water-related equipment issues because it’s important to stop the spread of zebra mussels,” Meier said. “The language they have would reduce that.”
House bill addresses school trust lands
The House bill wades into the contentious issue of school trust lands located inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It includes a proposal to make a land exchange of 93,000 acres of school trust land from the Boundary Waters to create a so-called children’s state forest. The trust lands in the Boundary Waters cannot be logged to generate revenue for K-12 public schools. (Generating revenue for schools was the original intent of the school trust lands, which were established around the time Minnesota became a state.)
The House proposal, which is being pressed by Iron Range legislators, envisions an acre-for-acre exchange with the federal government that would swap land in the Superior National Forest for the BWCA land. Reps. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, and David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, have pushed the proposal because they want to see the land exchanged for industrial forest land that can be logged or mined. They refer to the proposal as the children’s state forest because the proceeds generated from logging and mining would be placed in the permanent school fund to benefit K-12 education. Environmental groups have advocated that two-thirds of the Boundary Waters land be sold to the federal government for cash and one-third be exchanged for land.
Rukavina said he wants the issue to be written into statute and then pursue negotiations with federal lawmakers.
“This issue here has been around for well over a decade, and the fact of the matter is for more than 40 years, those lands have generated no money for the school trust,” Rukavina said.
John Tuma, a Conservation Minnesota lobbyist, said there’s no motivation in Washington to do the exchange.
“By sending this message, what you’re doing is essentially going backwards,” Tuma said. “What you’re doing essentially in the parlays of negotiations with the federal government, who has the upper hand here, is saying, ‘I’m poking them in the eye,’ and they’re going to walk away from the table.”
Betsy Daub, the policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters, said an acre-for-acre land exchange could diminish the outdoor recreation and wildlife of the Superior National Forest.
“Moving 86,000 acres of land or more out of the Superior National Forest management and into high resource extraction management is not acceptable,” Daub said. “Indeed, many of these lands are not acceptable for this management.”
While the Senate bill doesn’t include the House’s children’s state forest, Ingebrigtsen’s committee is planning to hear legislation related to school trust fund issues on Thursday.
House bill would modify Executive Council powers
The House bill also delves into the recent controversy over the State Executive Council’s authority in issuing mineral leases by proposing to strip the council of its authority to vet the leases. The Executive Council, which consists of the state’s four constitutional officers, including the governor and attorney general, oversees certain land deals, including mineral leases. In areas of northern Minnesota that are heavily mined, property owners often own the surface land while the state retains the right to the minerals below ground.
Last year, landowners appeared before the Executive Council to object to the sale of mineral leases that had been planned by the DNR. After an outcry from homeowners, Dayton decided to wait on issuing the mineral rights for six months while the state’s mining policies were reviewed.
Larry Kramka, the DNR’s director of lands and minerals, told the House Environment Committee that the DNR had followed the law in seeking to sell the mineral rights and noted that the agency has a responsibility to manage the mineral rights in state’s best financial interests. However, Kramka said no consensus exists about how or whether the Executive Council’s role should be refashioned.
McNamara said he hoped that the constitutional officers who serve on the Executive Council will weigh in on the changes. For now, though, the bill does propose to transfer some of the Executive Council’s authority to the DNR. The power shift is opposed by environmental groups.
Steve Morse, the executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said the move was too much of a departure from the normal approach that property owners use to assert their rights. He said the power that the current setup gives statewide elected officials serves as a check on the DNR.
“We believe removing authority from the Executive Council while there are pending issues on the table is not fair to citizens who are participating in good faith on this issue,” Morse said.