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One Minnesota water issue mellows as rally begins

A large blue banner made one of the main points of Water Action Day at the Minnesota Capitol on Wednesday, May 2, 2018. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 5
Hundreds of people rallied for clean water in the Minnesota Capitol Wednesday, May 2, 2018. The annual Water Action Day featured people promoting a rule restricting nitrogen fertilizer use. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 5
Fish swam around in the Minnesota Capitol air Wednesday, May 2, 2018, as hundreds rallied in favor of clean water. The event filled the rotunda. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 5
Among issues discussed at a Minnesota Capitol clean-water rally Wednesday, May 2, 2018, was opposition to a new Line 3 crude oil pipeline in northern Minnesota. Don Davis / Forum News Service4 / 5
Duluth-area residents were among hundreds at the Water Action Day rally in the Minnesota Capitol Wednesday, Mary 2, 2018. Don Davis / Forum News Service5 / 5

ST. PAUL — Minnesota water advocates gathered at the Capitol for their annual Clean Water Action Day when at least one water controversy seems to be easing.

House Agriculture Chairman Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said Wednesday, May 2, an hour before the clean-water rally that farmers now pretty much accept a Dayton administration draft rule on nitrogen fertilizer, although he said they still do not trust the administration.

Hundreds rallied in favor of clean water Wednesday, talking about issues such as sulfate in wild rice water and construction of an oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.

But the latest agriculture water controversy was subsiding.

Gov. Mark Dayton and key agriculture aides are working on cutting the use of nitrogen fertilizer, which results in nitrates entering water. They have a draft rule to ban its fall application in much of Minnesota.

After looking over the latest draft rule, which could be made permanent later this year or early in 2019, Anderson said most of his concerns have been fixed.

"The rule by itself, I don't think is too bad," he told Forum News Service.

As it stands, the rules ban the fertilizer on frozen fields in the fall in areas of the state where soil is likely to allow the nitrates to leech into underground water supplies. The northern part of the state is not included in the rule, which mostly affects central Minnesota to the southeast, with individual communities affected elsewhere.

Farmers generally do not apply nitrogen on frozen ground because it does not get into the soil.

However, Anderson said, there is a problem. "The biggest stumbling block is this lack of trust between the agencies and the Legislature."

Because of the trust problem, rural Republicans have provisions in two larger bills and one stand-alone measure to require legislative approval before the rule can be enforced.

"We just want to make sure there are no surprises," Anderson said.

Other water disputes remain.

One brought up at the water rally is about whether a proposed replacement for the Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline in northern Minnesota could harm water there.

Enbridge already has six pipelines in Minnesota, Honor the Earth's Winona LaDuke said. "Six is enough."

The state Public Utilities Commission is expected to decide on Line 3 in June. LaDuke invited those at the rally to northern Minnesota this summer, either to celebrate a victory or protest against the pipeline.

Snowmobile death leads to bill

The Senate decided that drivers of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles should be treated like drivers of motor vehicles charged with drunken driving.

Legislation senators passed 59-7 provides that anyone convicted of drunken driving in any type of vehicle — or who refuse a blood, breath or urine test — would lose privileges to drive recreational vehicles if they could not drive motor vehicles. The bill also applies to motorboat operators.

The legislation came after 8-year-old Alan Geisenkoetter Jr. of Wyoming, Minn., died when a snowmobile struck him on a lake early this year. He was prepared to go ice fishing.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said snowmobiles uses to be able to go 30 miles an hour to 35 miles an hour, but new ones now can travel three times that fast. "These have become very dangerous things, which used improperly can be fatal."

But Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, opposed the bill, saying that even though the boy's death was a tragedy, "at some point in time, we have to be careful how to legislate and what we impose on people of the state."

House OKs protest penalty

Protesters who illegally obstruct roads would receive increased penalties under a bill the House approved 92-35.

The provision follows protests in recent years that closed Twin Cities interstates. Many of the protesters were connected with Black Lives Matter events.

The penalty would increase from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. It would apply to people who intentionally obstruct traffic around a road or at an airport.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said he was not trying to interfere with the right of free speech.

"What the language in this bill would do is say that that activity where you block a freeway, when you block access to an airport, when you march in front of a light-rail train and put your arms in PVC pipe and handcuff each other together and then put bike locks around each other's neck to the fence," he said. "That activity is so dangerous that it deserves to have an extra criminal penalty."

The People of Color and Indigenous Caucus in the Minnesota House released a statement about the provision: "Nothing is more foundational to our democracy than the right to peacefully protest and exercise our freedom of speech; this Republican Public Safety bill is clearly an effort to silence our voices at a time when people are speaking out against injustice in record numbers."

Also in the bill are provisions to increase penalties for assaulting a police officer and for prevent local governments from ordering officers to not carry guns.

Opposing tax bill

The Dayton administration delivered strong comments against a Senate Republican tax bill a day after it was introduced.

Revenue Commissioner Cynthia Bauerly told the Senate Taxes Committee Wednesday that while she agreed with some of the bill, there are many provisions she and Dayton oppose.

"The bill cuts the first tier tax rate from 5.35 percent to 5.1 percent," Bauerly said. "However, the rate cut will help high-income earners as much or more than other Minnesota families. ... Married joint filers earning $20,000 will receive a $50 tax cut while those earning $150,000 per year will receive a $95 tax cut."

The Revenue Department's Paul Cumings said the GOP bill does not contain some provisions Dayton wants, such as restoring tax increases on tobacco products.

Cummings gave several reasons why a provision that would automatically cut taxes in some cases was a bad move.

"Instead of providing more long-term stability in state budgeting, this bill will mean a return to instability by prioritizing tax cuts — based on limited and premature information — over any other investments in Minnesota including our reserve," Cummings said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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