2020 legislative session ends with most bills "staying at home"

by Trevor Russell

This legislative session ended without an environment bill or a bonding bill. That means the fate of initiatives to protect our drinking water, lakes and rivers from pollutants like the excess phosphorous causing this algae bloom will have to wait for a special session. (Photo: MPCA Photos)

On Sunday at midnight, the 2020 Minnesota Legislature wrapped up a legislative session unlike any other. And in the end, most legislation failed to cross the finish line in time.

Unfortunately, most of our initiatives are still in limbo, including a bonding bill that would fix the pipes for clean water, protection of the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, and support for the smart salting program. So what happens next?

A promising session turns sour

Minnesota embarked on the 2020 session with a massive $1.5 billion state budget surplus and bipartisan demand for a robust state bonding bill, shaded with the uncertainty that always comes with Minnesota's increasingly rare divided control and election-year politics.

That was before COVID-19 darkened our doors and everything changed. The pandemic pushed state coffers into the red while the governor and legislators grappled with emergency legislation aimed at avoiding a public health catastrophe.

As the clock inched towards a May 18th adjournment, most major items on the Legislature’s initial to-do list failed to cross the finish line.

Here’s what was (and was not) completed in time, and our best guess as to what comes next.

Bonding for clean water & the Mississippi River (unfinished)

In the House of Representatives, the majority brought forward a $2.5 billion bonding bill that included $327 million for water infrastructure. This much-needed investment is a priority for FMR and the Fix the Pipes Alliance. It would have put Minnesotans to work fixing busted pipes and other water treatment systems crucial for clean water across the state. The House bill also funded the River Learning Center, another bonding bill priority for FMR. 

The Senate brought forward a $998 million bill that included a smaller, but still much-needed $149 million for water infrastructure. Otherwise, their bill focused heavily on roads and highways with relatively little for the environment. 

Both chambers fell short of the 60% of votes required to advance a bonding bill. No final agreement was reached.

Learn more about how FMR’s top priorities fared between the governor’s original proposal and the House and Senate versions of the bonding bill.

Protecting the Environmental Trust Fund (unfinished)

One issue that made plenty of headlines this session was a Senate attempt to raid the state’s voter-approved lottery money from the Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF) for prohibited purposes.

After hearing from FMR and our allies, we were thrilled to see the Senate change course and offer a "clean" trust fund bill. Read more about this major win for our environment.

Unfortunately, the bills were included in larger omnibus environment bills that were not able to cross the finish line before time expired.

The Environment Bills (unfinished) 

State budget downturn cast a long shadow over environment funding proposals this session, and the House and Senate’s environment bill focused more on policy changes than making new investments.

While the House bill was relatively strong, FMR had very serious concerns about the Senate version. The Senate bill included a number of rollbacks to existing environmental protections and some concerning language that would impact groundwater/drinking water protections.

The House omnibus environment bill passed the House floor with a vote of 74-59. The Senate followed suit and passed their omnibus environment bill with a vote of 41-26.

However, the clock ran out before the two chambers could appoint a conference committee to work out the differences between those two bills. As a result, no final action was taken and no omnibus environment bill will be sent to the governor.

Stopping salt pollution (unfinished) 

FMR, along with our friends at Stop Over Salting (SOS), Clean Water Action and the Minneapolis Area Synod worked in collaboration on legislation to reduce salt pollution.

While language to boost agency funding and provide modified liability protections for winter snow and ice managers did not advance, we were pleased to see that the program was expanded to allow many more communities and businesses statewide to access high-value Smart Salt training and education programs across Minnesota.

However, this language was included in the omnibus environment bill (see above) that did not pass before the Legislature adjourned.

The Clean Water Fund (a mixed bag)

As the pandemic wreaked havoc on our budget, it became clear that the state would need to trim about $17 million in existing Clean Water Fund appropriations to projects that protect or restore our groundwater, lakes, rivers and streams. The House and Senate did not agree to make these cuts this session, and can either take up additional legislation during a special session or simply leave those cuts up to the administration.

In addition, we had hoped that those cuts could be minimized by moving Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) funding in the current appropriation out of the Clean Water Fund and into bonding (its traditional funding source). The CREP allocation was not moved into bonding — although that may also be revisited in a special session.

However, language was included to allow any current Clean Water Fund appropriation or grant due to expire on June 30, 2020 an additional year to complete their work due to complications from the COVID-19 pandemic. That language did pass and will be signed by the governor — providing additional flexibility for recipients during this challenging time. 

A pair of important wins for Minnesota's environment

There were a pair of excellent wins for Minnesota’s environment this session that FMR didn’t work on directly, but which certainly deserve a shout-out here.

  • TCE Ban: Minnesota has become the first state in the nation to phase out toxic trichloroethylene (TCE). TCE is a cancer-causing, human-made chemical mainly used as a solvent in manufacturing to degrease metal parts. TCE made headlines for all the wrong reasons after contamination from a Water Gremlin facility raised public health alarms in White Bear Lake (at a facility that also had issues with "take-home lead").

    The phase-out bill, led by White Bear Area Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group with support from our friends at Conservation Minnesota and others, ends industrial use of TCE by June 2022. You can read more about this important victory here.  
  • Aid for Farmers: Championed by our friends at the Land Stewardship Project along with the Farmers Union and others, several bills passed to provide much-needed aid to struggling farm operators. The three bills of note here include:
    • Extending deadlines in the Farmer-Lender Mediation Act: This bill allows farmers in mediation more time to respond to the emerging farm crisis without losing their operations.
    • Loan restructuring assistance: Part of the omnibus ag finance bill, grants to assist farmers in mediation with the cost of restructuring a loan will cover up to 50% of the origination fee.
    • Farm advocates funding: Additional funding support for the Farm Advocates program will provide legal advisers to help farm operations facing foreclosure.

Looking ahead

Several important issues remain unresolved and will need to advance during a special session. There is clear bipartisan interest in bonding, as well as allocating funds for the Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund among other bills left undone.

One factor in play is that the governor's current emergency powers expire in mid-June, and will require legislative re-authorization. Given that we'll certainly still be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic then, the Legislature will likely need to reconvene for that purpose. As such, we expect a special session to be called in mid-June to address both emergency response powers as well as to address the unfinished business of the 2020 regular session.

We look forward to working with FMR members and advocates, as well as our conservation partners and state agencies, to advance these important initiatives during the rest of the 2020 legislative session.

Join the River Guardians

We count on over 2,000 River Guardians to help us shape legislation to protect the Mississippi River. As we look forward to an upcoming special session, we hope you will take a moment to become a River Guardian.

We'll let you know when important river issues arise and help you quickly and easily let your legislators know your thoughts.

River Guardians are also invited to special events (including happy hours) to learn more about important legislative and metro river corridor issues and to toast our accomplishments.

More legislative updates