Wednesday, July 13, 2005 11:23 AM EDT
By Joe Albert
St. Paul - A plan put forward by a group of farm, business, and environmental interests to clean the state's lakes and rivers is apparently dead, at least for the time being.
The Clean Water Legacy Act would have funded the testing and clean up of waters through a fee on septic systems and sewer connections. The group called for $80 million per year.
The plan made the most headway in the Senate, but languished in a House committee. The Senate passed the policy language, and included funding for the plan in a tax bill.
Most recently, the plan would have been partially funded by a gambling expansion, but the idea of a racino was dropped as part of a deal last week to end the partial government shutdown. Proponents still are holding out hope it could be revived during a second special session.
The plan got hours of hearings in both the House and Senate, and there was little argument over the need to clean up lakes and rivers, but legislators didn't agree on how to fund it, said Gary Botzek, of the Minnesota Conservation Federation.
"The $36 fee never got good traction," Botzek said.
Under the original plan, $80 million would have been raised each year by a $36 fee on residential septic and sewer systems, and a $120 to $600 fee each year on businesses, depending on their water use. The plan included exemptions for low-income residents.
"Maybe naively, we thought if the groups worked for two years on a common-sense approach... We thought legislators would recognize that," said Anne Hunt of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. "We called it a common-sense and practical solution.
"Everybody contributes to water pollution, and we thought the burden should be spread across the board."
Plus, she said, it was agreed to by diverse interests: "It's not often we join forces with the Farmers Union and Farm Bureau and the Minnesota Chamber."
Supporters say they'll keep pushing for passage of the bill, either in another special session this year, or next year. There's been speculation the governor could call another session to deal with stadium issues.
"If they are going to have another special session for the stadium, we don't see why the Clean Water Legacy shouldn't be involved," Hunt said. "There was more broad support for the Clean Water Legacy than there's been for the stadium initiative."
A variety of funding options will be on the table during future discussions, said Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, who authored the bill in the Senate. Those options include sewer and septic fees, as well as a fee on improved property, money from the General Fund, money from bonding, or money from a new dedicated sales tax.
"A lot of people want to stick to that fee, but I think we have to be politically realistic and look at alternatives, including dedicated funding," Botzek said.
A dedicated funding bill could include part for clean water and part for fish and wildlife, Botzek and Frederickson said. A group of clean water, hunting, fishing, and zoo interests likely would be behind a bill like that, Botzek said.
"That could be enough political muscle to get it passed," he said.
As Session 2005 winds down, preparations already are being made for the bonding session next year.
The DNR's requests include:
€$6 million to accelerate fisheries acquisition and habitat improvement and development programs.
€$20 million for acquisition of 5,000 acres worth of wildlife management areas.
€$1 million for waterfowl habitat structures.
€$1 million for fish hatcheries in Lanesboro, Brainerd, and French River.
The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, meanwhile, requested $30.15 million to purchase conservation easements on private land through CREP and Re-invest In Minnesota.