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Omnibus environment bill could help Minnesota Zoo reopen

Visitors walk past the State Capitol June 16. Photo by Paul Battaglia

For fans of the Minnesota Zoo, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that it may reopen as soon as next week for drive-through interactions with the animals.

The bad news is that it’s in danger of being closed for much longer if it doesn’t get an infusion of at least $6 million.

That’s what the zoo’s director of legislative affairs, Missy McGrath, told the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division Tuesday. The division responded by approving an amendment to the omnibus environment and natural resources bill that changes what would have been a $350,000 supplemental General Fund appropriation for the zoo to that $6 million request.

The division then approved the bill, as amended, by the same 10-7 party-line vote by which it approved the amendment. SSHF28, sponsored by Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul), contains $64.2 million in appropriations for fiscal years 2020-21 from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. It was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee. There is no Senate companion.

HF28 heard in House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division 6/16/20

The bill also contains supplemental appropriations and appropriation extensions for the Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources and other entities, as well as a number of statutory changes related to the environment and natural resources.

But the Minnesota Zoo became the central topic when the urgency of its situation emerged during discussion of the amendment. Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R-Nisswa) asked McGrath if the $6 million requested was “the minimum to stay solvent.”

“After we were forced to close on March 14 (due to COVID-19-related restrictions), we froze all expenditures, laid off 58 staff and reduced the hours of others, with 125 positions affected,” McGrath said. “The $6 million is what we need to reopen. … We’re also working on a ‘Save the Zoo’ campaign with our foundation.

“With our $10 million appropriation for next year, this $6 million and other fundraising, we are optimistic that we’ll be able to stay open,” she said.

Rep. Peter Fischer (DFL-Maplewood) asked how long the zoo expects until attendance is up to pre-COVID levels. McGrath said research and industry models have the zoo “basing our projections on a 50% model,” and added that current plans are for physically distanced zoo visits to begin in July.

SSHF28 is a compendium of other bills, consisting of recommendations from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, policy bills for the DNR and Pollution Control Agency, and a bill on the administration of state lands.

The largest proposed expenditure in the bill is $29.9 million for various land acquisition, habitat and recreation projects designed to maintain and improve parks, trails and recreation areas. Another $10.7 million would be dedicated to research and management of aquatic and terrestrial invasive species, such as emerald ash borer and Asian carp.

Among other appropriations from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund contained in the bill are:

  • $8.6 million for projects that collect foundational data and information about Minnesota’s natural resources;
  • $5.1 million to study methods to protect or restore land, water and habitat;
  • $5 million for studies involving water resources;
  • $3 million in technical assistance, outreach, and environmental education;
  • $1.1 million for wastewater renewable energy demonstration grants; and
  • $573,000 for studies of air quality and renewable energy.

Policy changes in the bill include:

  • establishing a soil and water conservation fund;
  • a requirement for the DNR to issue free annual state park permits to members of the 11 federally recognized tribes;
  • allowing the cross-country ski trails account to be used for developing and maintaining state cross-country-ski trails;
  • a ban on insecticides from the neonicotinoid class in a wildlife management area;
  • a requirement that the DNR prescribe conditions and issue permits to breed, propagate, and sell snakes, lizards, and salamanders;
  • a ban on taking turtles within the seven-county metropolitan area under a turtle seller's license;
  • a requirement that the DNR hold a public meeting prior to issuing a water-use permit for more than 250,000 gallons per day average over a 30-day period;
  • creation of an Advisory Council on Water Supply Systems and Wastewater Treatment Facilities to advise the Department of Health and the Pollution Control Agency regarding water supply systems and wastewater treatment facilities;
  • a ban on personal care disposable products from being labeled as “flushable” unless they meet certain industry standards;
  • allowing the Pollution Control Agency to acquire solid waste disposal facilities to prevent a threat to public health and the environment related to closure or post-closures;
  • a ban on food packaging that contains perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); and
  • requiring the DNR to develop recommendations for establishing a safety program for watercraft operators.

Dry cleaner cleanup

The committee also approved a bill that makes changes to the dry cleaner environmental response and reimbursement account. That account is composed of fees paid by dry cleaner facilities, and is used to reimburse dry cleaner owners and operators for costs resulting from cleanups of environmental contamination from dry cleaner facilities.

Sponsored by Hansen, SSHF134 would prohibit the use of percholoroethylene as a dry cleaning solvent, and appropriate $400,000 from the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund in fiscal year 2021 to the Pollution Control Agency for a grant program to assist dry cleaning businesses in transitioning away from the solvent, with a maximum grant of $25,000.

“If we don’t pass this, then fees will be going up,” Hansen said. “As people use Zoom, they don’t dress up as much, so demand is down. We’re hoping to provide cost share for those dry cleaners transitioning away from these solvents.”

The bill was approved, 16-1, and is on its way to the Ways and Means Committee. It, too, has no Senate companion.

— Session Daily writer Deena Winter contributed to this story.


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