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Column: Is it time for a new state slogan?

By Paul Austin, Conservation Minnesota MINNEAPOLIS -- We're known as the land of 10,000 lakes because of the pride and deep connection we have to our state's defining feature. This was one of the driving forces behind the passage of the Legacy Am...

 

 

By Paul Austin, Conservation Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS - We’re known as the land of 10,000 lakes because of the pride and deep connection we have to our state’s defining feature.

This was one of the driving forces behind the passage of the Legacy Amendment a decade ago. In the grips of a national recession, we voted to increase our own taxes to reverse years of budget cuts and neglect of our lakes and natural resources. Traveling around the state talking to groups, it is always the one issue where no partisan bias seems to exist. Minnesotans of all walks of life value the dedication we have traditionally shown toward clean, safe water.

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Yet despite this broad support, a $1.6 billion state budget surplus and generous funding from the Legacy Amendment, the current legislature is making decisions that ignore the values and health of communities across our state.

They are plotting a course to slash more than $20 million in the next biennium from the budgets of the various state agencies that keep our waters safe and clean. And that isn’t $20 million from anticipated increases based on inflation. This is a cut from the current budget levels. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Health and the Department of Natural Resources have warned that the policies and budgets proposed by the Legislature will delay or suspend water quality standards, cut drinking water and wellhead protection programs, reduce services and maintenance at state parks, and slash programs that protect game and fish.

And that is just the start.

We are about to see the size of commercial feedlots jump from 1,000 to 2,000 animal units without requiring additional environmental review as to what impacts such a change would have on the each community’s lakes and streams.  

The state’s buffer law is being scaled back dramatically, and little effort is being made to support the existing programs like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program that would help pay farmers for reaching compliance.

Last year the legislature failed to pass a bonding bill, which meant no new funding for upgrading any of the state’s aging municipal wastewater treatments plants. And again this year there does not appear to be much urgency toward passing a bonding bill.

The good thing is, it is not too late for our legislators to redeem themselves this session. The legislature returns this week, and has until May 22 to complete its work. That leaves them plenty of time to show us all that lawmakers understand how much Minnesotans value water.

They could show their support for cities around the state by passing a bonding bill that helps fund wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Many cities need help modernizing their systems not only to protect their drinking water, but also to protect their taxpayers. If the state is unable to help, and they are forced to go it alone, this major cost shifts to the property tax bills of residents. Similarly, the state’s farmers would benefit greatly from the inclusion of funding for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. There is a major federal match that requires a minor state investment. By doing this, funds would be available to help pay farmers reach compliance with the state’s existing buffer regulations. Truly a win-win proposition.

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And finally, if they really wanted to show they understand the place water plays in the hearts and minds of the people of Minnesota, the legislature would accept the challenge put forth earlier this year by Governor Dayton to improve the state’s overall water quality by 25 percent by the year 2025.

Water enjoys bipartisan support. The budget enjoys a surplus. Now is not the time to cut corners when it comes to one of the issues that truly unites us all as Minnesotans.

 

Paul Austin is the executive director of Conservation Minnesota.

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