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Minnesota Legislature

At Issue: Funding environment and energy

Published (5/8/2009)
By Sue Hegarty
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Conferees cut an additional $16.5 million from the omnibus environment and energy finance bill before both legislative bodies passed the bill within minutes of each other May 4.

*HF2123/SF2099, sponsored by Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls) and Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul) passed the House 98-35 and 52-15 in the Senate.

Its fate rested in the hands of Gov. Tim Pawlenty Thursday but results were not available at the time of publication.

Environment

The environment portion, which includes General Fund appropriations for the Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources, Board of Water and Soil Resources, Minnesota Zoo, Science Museum of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Council for parks funding, shakes out to be $305.7 million from the General Fund. That is less than the House proposed, but more than the Senate.

Conferees were able to keep basic funding for parks and water quality projects, which was important if the projects are to receive additional funds from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, Wagenius said. The fund resulted from passage of a constitutional amendment that requires that the dedicated tax receipts supplement traditional sources of funding and may not be used as a substitute, such as replacing General Fund cuts.

However, Wagenius was disappointed with conferees dilution of the Toxic Free Kids Act. “That was clearly the low point of our conference committee,” she said.

Rep. Kate Knuth (DFL-New Brighton), who sponsored the Toxic Free Kids Act as HF250, said pressure from the governor’s office resulted in its partial deletion from the law.

The Pollution Control Agency is directed to collect and prioritize a list of toxic chemicals, but the provision that required the agency to look for safer alternatives in children’s products was removed by conferees.

“We’ll keep working on toxic chemical policies because people think their government is taking care of toxic chemicals in products. That belief is being undermined,” Knuth said.

Energy

Energy-related spending comprises $54.3 million from the General Fund. At the Senate’s suggestion, two money transfers will be completed.

In the first instance, $500,000 will go from a dedicated fund in the Department of Commerce to the General Fund.

Another $750,000 one-time transfer from the E85/biodiesel grant program will be made to the General Fund. Rep. Bill Hilty (DFL-Finlayson) said demand for the grants has dropped and the Office of Energy Security assured him there was enough grant money remaining to fund requests.

Besides the money transfers, a swap was done to provide a solution to a sticking point regarding usage of the federal stimulus money. Republican leaders argued that a $1.5 million appropriation from the federal stimulus package would jeopardize the law because federal stimulus dollars may not be used for applied research.

When passed off the House floor, the law allocated $1.5 million to the proposed International Renewable Energy Technology Institute at Minnesota State University, Mankato. The institute is a public, private partnership of the state’s colleges and universities system to gain renewable energy technology from Sweden.

Instead, conferees removed it from the law and appropriated $1.5 million from the rural and energy development revolving loan fund to the institute. In its place within the energy finance bill, $2 million was appropriated for an Emerging Renewable Energy Industries grant program.

When prioritizing where to save money, conferees cut administration costs and tried to spare the grant programs that help local government agencies complete their fieldwork, said Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul). For example, the Board of Water and Soil Resources took a 10.8 percent budget cut.

“These are painful cuts, but they are effective cuts,” Hansen said.

Nearly $200 million of federal stimulus money was removed from the law, and is moving forward as HF680/SF657*, sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Kalin (DFL-North Branch) and Anderson. Now in the conference committee process, the bill uses federal stimulus funds for weatherizing low- to moderate-income homes and rental properties, establishes a window replacement option and a residential revolving loan program.

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