Senate Republicans threaten to cut funding for Minnesota state parks, environmental programs over ‘clean cars’ rule

Source: By Jennifer Bjorhus, Greg Stanley and Briana Bierschbach, Minneapolis Star Tribune • Posted: Monday, May 10, 2021

GOP bill cuts funding unless rules reducing emissions are stopped.

Minnesota’s state parks could shut down in July if the Walz administration does not bow to demands by Senate Republicans to drop plans for new “clean cars” emissions standards.

Along with parks, much of the environmental arm of state government would shut down over the impasse, which flared up during a conference committee meeting Tuesday on the Senate’s proposed omnibus environment budget.

If passed, the Senate’s version of the omnibus environment bill would slash tens of millions of dollars in environmental funding on a variety of projects, from combating chronic wasting disease in deer and the decline in pollinators to cleaning up forever chemicals in water supplies.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, told the committee it is the only budget he will consider, and that he will not pass anything at all unless the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) rule-making on clean cars is stopped.

“We are an outlier,” Ingebrigtsen told the committee. “We’re the only ones in the Midwest that’s moving forward with this. It’s very maddening for me and I think it is for a lot of folks.”

He and Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, accused the MPCA of being unwilling to compromise on the controversial emissions-cutting program. The agency should have brought it to the Legislature, Ingebrigtsen said.

The new rule, similar to one in California and more than a dozen other states, aims to help drive down heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by requiring automakers to increase deliveries of electric vehicles to Minnesota for sale. DFL Gov. Tim Walz directed the MPCA to develop the rule as part of his emphasis on addressing climate change and the need to cut global warming gases.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, reiterated the ultimatum for clarity: “So, if there’s not a repeal of the authority for the Clean Car rule-making coming out of this conference committee, then the budgets for BWSR [the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources], the Minnesota Zoo, the LCCR [Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources], the Conservation Corps, the Science Museum … the MPCA and the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] will not happen, unless we accede to the Senate position, is that correct Senator Ingebrigtsen?”

“That’s exactly correct,” Ingebrigtsen replied. “I think we can move forward, but it’s going to have to be with that understanding.”

The hard-line move comes just days before a state administrative law judge is set to issue a decision on whether to adopt Minnesota’s Clean Cars rule.

Judicial approval likely will not affect Republican efforts to block the environment bill.

‘Devastating’ closure

Rep. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, said during the meeting it would be “devastating” to have state parks close in July, particularly given the need for a pandemic-weary public to get outside.

Before adjourning the meeting, Hansen noted that Minnesotans “share one planet.” It’s a shame, he said, that so many environmental projects would be held up by a rule aimed at cutting global warming emissions.

“This is the only one we’ve got, and the climate is drastically being changed. We don’t have a lot of time,” Hansen said.

Following the meeting, Hansen called the situation “a new low” for the Legislature.

In her testimony, MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop defended the agency’s handling of the Clean Cars rule against Republican assertions that her agency was unwilling to compromise or entrust the matter to the state’s elected lawmakers.

The agency has held numerous public meetings around the state and received more than 10,000 comments, she said, and the rule has had “extensive” input and review. Most states that have pursued a zero-emissions vehicle program have done it by rule-making, she said.

“We were directed by the governor to undertake this rule-making,” Bishop told the committee. “That’s the policy of this administration.”

There has been stiff pushback on the proposal, including from the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association, which unsuccessfully sued over it. Dealers could take tremendous losses after being saddled with thousands of unpopular vehicles they can’t sell, said Scott Lambert, president of the association.

“The MPCA has been dismissive of our concerns from the start,” Lambert said. “They will not meet with us.”

If the administration truly wants more electric vehicles on the road, then it needs to build up demand with incentives for buyers and charging stations for drivers, he said.

“If the idea is to get electric cars into people’s garages, we can get that done, and pretty quick,” Lambert said. “But if they only want to hold firm to this California mandate, it’s going to be tougher to do a deal.”

When asked about the standoff Tuesday, Walz said it makes no sense.

“There’s irony in that, they are going to hold up the environmental budget for a proposal that cleans the environment,” Walz said. “The idea that you would shut down government, shut down funding … because we’re doing what 15 other states and most of the rest of the world has done just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“If you don’t want to buy an electric vehicle, don’t buy one,” he said.

Parks would close in July

The heads of Minnesota organizations that stand to lose funding testified the cuts would have a negative impact they can scarcely afford.

The DNR, for example, could lose $9.8 million in general fund dollars in the Senate version, threatening 72 active grants for projects around the state that the DNR supports, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen testified.

Strommen told the committee that all state parks would close in July without funding: “If we do not have a budget for the fiscal year we don’t operate.”

Katie Pratt, executive director of the Environmental Quality Board, said the Senate reductions would force it to cut a staff position.

Alison Rempel Brown, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota, said the museum was hit hard by COVID-19 and has already cut its staff in half. The museum expects an operating loss of $15 million over the two-year period due to the pandemic, she said.

If it doesn’t get state funding this year, it will have to cut more of its work in science and education, and add that cash-flow issue into the talks it is having with its banks.

“This has been a really challenging year for parents and children alike,” Brown said.