Watered-Down Promise

David Witt

Speaking before several hundred people gathered at a conference in St. Cloud last June, Gov. Tim Pawlenty unveiled an ambitious plan to revitalize the state's polluted waterways. "As a governor who does not believe we can afford to let the state slip further down the slope of silt, sewage, and sludge, I'm here today to talk about a renewed statewide commitment to clean, quality water in the state of Minnesota,'' Pawlenty told the crowd.

To that end, the governor pledged to create a "clean water cabinet" to guide his efforts, to set aside up to 100,000 acres of farmland, and, perhaps most significantly, to find a "long-term funding mechanism" to pay for testing and restoring Minnesota's polluted waters--an effort Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan estimates could cost as much as $3 billion over two decades.

In the wake of that speech, the MPCA assembled a coalition of organizations with a vested interest in cleaning up polluted waterways, including environmental groups, farm associations, and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Over a six-month period, the 16 disparate groups, dubbed the G-16, held more than 50 hours of often contentious meetings. In December the group released a report laying out its vision for how the state could comply with the federal Clean Water Act and make significant progress on cleaning up the state's "impaired waters."

The lynchpin of the plan was a proposal to raise at least $75 million annually for clean water initiatives. Essentially, households would be charged an annual fee of $36, while businesses would have to pony up $150. The group settled on this funding scheme after considering and discarding more than 40 other means of paying for the initiative. "It was not necessarily the best option," concedes Craig Johnson, intergovernmental relations representative for the League of Minnesota Cities. "It was just the consensus option."

That consensus was shared by all but one party: Pawlenty. In January, he informed the G-16 members that he wouldn't back the proposed new fee for fear of reneging on his pledge to not raise taxes. Without the governor's support, the funding proposal is unlikely to even get a hearing during the current legislative session. No one has put forth a bill proposing it, and no one intends to.

The governor's lack of support has left some members of the G-16 group frustrated, noting that it was unprecedented to have farmers, businesses, and environmental groups all on the same page. "If the governor's not even supporting it, why should we waste time in the legislature on something that's not going to go anywhere?" asks Sen. Dallas Sams, a Staples Democrat.

"He goes out and he says we're going to clean up Minnesota's waters and this and that, but then when the rubber hits the road and we've got to put some money into it, he's not there," scoffs Thom Petersen, director of government relations at the Minnesota Farmers Union. Petersen says that the G-16 coalition performed the yeoman's task of grinding out a plan and that now the governor and the MPCA need to step up. "We need leadership from them," he says. "We need them to say, 'We're going to stick our necks out and fight for this.' And that's not what we're seeing right now."

Environmental groups are more circumspect in criticizing the governor for failing to back the funding proposal, fearing that they might scuttle future efforts to find a stable source of money for clean water programs. "On the one hand it was his agency, the MPCA, that helped make this happen," allows Janette Brimmer, legal director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "But he doesn't like the fee structure we came up with. I'm struggling with how to read that."

MPCA commissioner Sheryl Corrigan insists that the governor remains committed to clean water. "He has charged the group with going back in, sharpening their pencils, and fully vetting all the options before we go to a new fee," says Corrigan. "The bottom line is, the governor understands the need for long-term, stable funding for water-quality protections and improvements."

With the G-16 funding proposal essentially dead, Sams has introduced an alternative bill in the Senate that would dedicate one quarter of one percent of the state's sales tax revenues to environmental programs. This would result in approximately $170 million being allocated annually for environmental causes, with roughly $50 million of that money going toward clean water initiatives. Rep. Tom Hackbarth, a Cedar Republican, has put forth a similar measure in the House. According to Commissioner Corrigan, the governor supports the idea.

This proposal faces a number of hurdles, however. For starters, it would require amending the state's constitution. This means that it would have to be approved by voters in November, and then passed again by the state legislature next session. The earliest that any funding could be available would be July of 2005. In addition, the earmarked money would come out of the state's already tapped general fund, putting further fiscal pressure on health care, education, and other areas that have been hit with severe cutbacks in recent years. "If you create a hole in the budget, then how does it impact those issues?" asks the Farm Bureau's Radatz.

Time is of the essence because of the enormity of the state's pollution problems. So far, the MPCA has tested just 8 percent of Minnesota's rivers and 14 percent of the lakes. What it's found has not been encouraging: Roughly 40 percent of those waterways have been deemed "impaired." There are now approximately 2,000 bodies of water that have been found to have unsatisfactory levels of pollutants, including mercury and phosphorus. If the problems are not rectified, local municipalities could eventually find themselves hamstrung by prohibitions on adding further pollutants to the waters. New factories, or even lakefront hotels, would be prevented from operating until the polluted waterway was cleaned up. "It's a very real economic hammer that's hanging over our heads," says the League of Cities' Johnson.

In addition, the absence of state money could eventually force local municipalities and businesses to cover the burden of meeting cleanup measures mandated under the Clean Water Act. "Private businesses, private landowners, and especially local units of government will be paying for all of this, which means your taxes will be going up to do it," Johnson argues. In other states, such as Florida and South Carolina, failure to provide state funding for restoring polluted waterways has resulted in costly lawsuits.

Members of the G-16 coalition are hoping that the state will get its act together before such action is taken. But few are anxious to return to the drawing board to try to come up with a new funding proposal that would meet with the governor's approval. "I feel like we already did our time and we came up with ideas," says Petersen. "I don't know what new ideas we're going to come up with."

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