FMR’s 2020 legislative priorities

by Trevor Russell

The 2020 legislative session kicks off on February 11. A divided legislature in this big election year will make for some fascinating political dynamics. Here's a brief look at what to expect, and what we'll be working on at the Capitol.

Lay of the land

Here’s a very brief sketch of the dynamics at play as the 2020 session begins.

  • Split legislature
    As divided party control of legislatures becomes increasingly rare, there are currently two split legislatures in the entire nation: Congress ... and Minnesota. Whether and how the two parties are able to agree on legislation will greatly influence the session outcome.
  • Election year politics
    2020 is an election year, and every state House and Senate seat is up for re-election following the 2020 session. (Rumor has it there are some significant national elections taking place as well!) These electoral dynamics are bound to influence how legislators position themselves and their respective parties this session.
  • Budget surplus
    Minnesota has a projected $1.3 billion budget surplus. Though most of that will not be available as spending money in 2020, it certainly leaves room for debate on a variety of new investments or tax incentives.
  • Bonding year
    Minnesota is in the second year of its biennial budget cycle, during which the legislature typically prioritizes large capital investment bills commonly known as “bonding” bills. Historically, at least 22% (and sometimes more) of the money raised has been devoted to the environment.

Our top priorities

Amid this backdrop, we'll be pursuing these four priorities this session. 

1) Clean, safe drinking and surface waters across Minnesota: Investments in water infrastructure 

At FMR, we believe that every Minnesotan deserves access to clean, safe drinking water and healthy surface waters. That’s why we strongly support robust state investment in drinking water, stormwater and wastewater systems across the state. Fortunately, Gov. Walz agrees and recently announced more than $200 million in state bonds for Minnesota’s flagship water infrastructure programs. Our top bonding items include:

  • Water Infrastructure Funding (WIF) Program ($100 million)
    Supplemental assistance grants to communities for high-cost clean water and drinking water infrastructure.
  • Point Source Implementation Grants Program ($75 million)
    Cost-share grants that help local communities construct wastewater, stormwater and drinking water treatment projects.
  • State match for the Federal Wastewater Infrastructure Fund ($25 million)
    This $25 million in state funds will secure an additional $125 million in federal funds for low-interest loans for local water projects.
2) More habitat for wildlife and a gain for farmers: Funding for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) pays farmers and landowners to keep sensitive lands out of agricultural production and establish long-term perennial landcover, from forests to prairies. From forests to prairies, these reserves improve water quality by preventing agricultural runoff, pollution and sedimentation.

Typically funded with state bonds, this excellent program has been a staple of Minnesota's conservation playbook for years. This year, Gov. Walz has proposed $16.5 million in bonds for CREP.

This will leverage more than $32 million in federal funds and ensure that the program is funded without raiding the Clean Water Fund — as recent legislatures have been all-too-willing to do. 

3) Making our freshwater less salty: Expansion of the Smart Salt Program

Chloride (salt) is commonly used as a deicer on Minnesota roads, sidewalks and parking lots. Unfortunately, it's also a permanent pollutant and has made headlines recently as salt levels in our waters have increased risks to aquatic life and our drinking water.

As we noted in our 2016 State of the River Report, the river has experienced an 81% increase in chloride levels just since 1985.

This year, FMR is joining a large coalition of organizations working to advance chloride reduction legislation. Together, we support expanding the state’s existing smart salt education program to help educate winter snow and ice managers from across the state to keep sidewalks, roads and parking lots safe without harming our environment.

Also, the initiative includes a two-part approach to help certify and indemnify private salt applicators as an incentive for protecting our waters:

  • Voluntary “smart salt” applicator certification
    Better training for private and public salt applicators can reduce salt application 30-70% without compromising public safety. This program should be available statewide.
  • Liability protection
    This would allow certified "smart salt” contractors to apply for liability protection, reducing their risk while reducing chloride levels and maintaining public safety.
4) Keeping Minnesota’s water in Minnesota: Passage of the Minnesota Groundwater Compact

Remember the Water Train? As we noted earlier this year, a concerning Progressive Rail proposal aimed to extract 500 million gallons of water per year from a unique Dakota County aquifer to be shipped via “Water Train” to Colorado for use in irrigation.

While FMR is grateful that Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen halted the projects (dare we say it)... in its tracks, a future administration could determine that similar water transfers are allowable.

While the Water Train is (we do dare say it)… off the rails for now, recent history suggests a corporation can find a controversial way to unexpectedly win state approval for a risky project in Minnesota.

That’s why we support language to strengthen our state water use statute to permanently block all out-of-state water transfers from the Mt. Simon-Hinckley aquifer and to require any out-of-state water transfers from other aquifer sources to require the approval of the governor and both houses of the state legislature.

Together, these four legislative items will help protect Minnesota’s surface waters, groundwater and drinking water for future generations.

Want to weigh in on our 2020 legislative priorities? Take our survey to let us know what you think!

Two other items to watch

In addition to our top four priorities, we'll be watching a few other issues closely as the legislative session progresses.

  • Sustainable SWCDs
    Minnesota is home to 88 Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs), special local units of government staffed by conservation professionals essential to meeting our environmental goals on privately-owned lands, which make up 78% of the land surface in Minnesota.

    Unfortunately, state funding for SWCDs is inconsistent at best. It’s time for Minnesota to find stable, reliable and fair funding for our state’s premier frontline conservation professionals that does not rely on short-term raids of constitutionally protected Clean Water Fund dollars.
  • Protecting the Environment & Natural Resources Trust Fund
    As we learned in 2018 and 2019, legislators sometimes see the state’s constitutionally-dedicated environmental funds as easy targets for raids and shifts. We expect nothing less this year.

    Meanwhile, several organizations have proposed a constitutional amendment reauthorizing the state lottery (which provides money to the trust fund) through 2050, and rededicating 90% of future proceeds away from the Trust Fund. FMR strongly opposes this approach, which we’ll detail in future blog posts on our soon-to-be-relaunched legislative updates blog.

Keep up to date

Throughout the legislative session, we’ll write updates on key environment and water quality issues. Sign up for Mississippi Messages — a monthly digest of FMR news and events — so you don't miss our posts.

You can help!

Your voice is essential to our efforts to protect, restore and enhance the Mississippi River. From banning pollutants to passing strong rules to guide local riverfront development, many of FMR's victories are thanks to our strong base of advocates.

Sign up to become a River Guardian, and we'll email you when an important river issue arises and make it quick and easy to contact decision-makers. River Guardians are also invited to special events, including happy hours, about important legislative and metro river corridor issues.


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