A legislative standoff over wastewater infrastructure funds threatens to block environmental spending this year from the state’s lottery-backed Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Deep divisions among legislators about using the $1 billion fund to finance wastewater treatment upgrades puts dozens of environmental projects in legislative limbo.
At the core of the issue is a proposal to spend $1.5 million from the trust fund for wastewater facility upgrades, which some Republican supporters see as an acceptable use of trust fund dollars but many others argue is a blatantly unconstitutional use of Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund dollars and is more properly funded in the capital investment bonding bill.
The disagreement erupted last summer during a meeting of the Lessard-Sams Citizen-Legislator Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), at which members had planned to approve recommendations to the Legislature for a $61 million package of environmental projects. Because commission members were deeply divided on whether to include the proposed $1.5 million in wastewater infrastructure funding, the LCCMR made no final recommendation to the Legislature for the first time in its history.
In late April, the Republican Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Chair upped the ante with a bold announcement by letter to the House DFL Environment and Natural Resources Finance Chair that there will be no Senate bill this year. The move shocked many and left dozens of projects without a clear path forward. Some project proposers worry it will disrupt work that is already underway or cause a gap in important research, and some depend on these funds for their livelihoods.
If there is no bill, some of the projects that stand to lose include those that study algal blooms in Minnesota’s pristine lakes, control invasive species, improve pollinator habitat, protect native prairie, buy land for parks and trails, and teach students about the environment. The Minnesota Invasive Terrestrial Plants and Pest Center at the University of Minnesota would lose $5 million to fund 15 research projects studying how to manage invasive species such as Palmer amaranth, a fast-growing weed affecting agricultural production across the Midwest. The Minnesota Zoo would lose $500,000 to continue its work rearing native freshwater mussels that will be returned to Minnesota rivers and to educate the public about their importance.
Other projects that could be put on hold include $1.4 million to study and develop strategies to manage per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in treated sewage sludge that is applied to farm fields where crops to feed livestock are grown and $425,000 to research tiny pieces of plastic in the environment and how those microplastics can serve as vehicles to transport other contaminants such as pesticides.
Lawmakers have until the legislative session’s constitutional deadline on May 18 to reach agreement on if there will – or won’t – be a trust fund spending bill this year. If not, the unspent funds will remain in reserve until 2021.