ST. PAUL -- Many Minnesota natural resources advocacy groups are concerned that the state's $5 billion budget deficit is being balanced at the expense of protecting the environment.
The Minnesota Environmental Partnership and Conservation Minnesota expressed frustration at Republican House and Senate budget proposals they say weaken environmental protections and cut funding at a crucial time.
They cited proposals that would exempt new ethanol plants from requirements to complete environmental assessments, place a moratorium on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency instituting new water rules, increase the allowable level of sulfides in water and reduce the MPCA's budget that accepts more work in streamlining permitting processes.
"The state's great outdoors are under assault," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, which represents a variety of outdoors groups. "It is a wholesale unraveling of the protections on Minnesota's outdoors."
Much of the frustration was aimed at debate over what projects would be funded by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, which recommends what money the Legislature should spend from money generated by the Minnesota State Lottery.
Republican leaders stripped several projects recommended by the commission and replaced them with five projects they say are more in line with the current Legislature's priorities. The move primarily eliminated research-related proposals and replaced them with projects dealing with emerging issues.
"Nothing is untouchable anymore," said Molly Pederson, governmental affairs director for Conservation Minnesota.
Pederson objects to the process by which the recommended projects were removed and to the addition of several projects not vetted by the committee.
"It cuts at the very core of why" the committee includes a citizen component, she said. "They completely circumvented the citizen process."
Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who chairs the House environment committee, defended the move, saying more than 80 percent of the recommendations remain in play for funding. He said the legislative-citizens panel recommends funding too much research.
"It is off track," he said. "I think we would do better to clean up the process."
Pederson also said she thinks the Legislature is using the commission budget to fund projects that should be paid with general tax money. Constitutionally dedicated environmental funds are supposed to supplement, not replace, other funds.
Environmentalists note that funds for dealing with aquatic invasive species and chronic wasting disease in deer are in Gov. Mark Dayton's general fund budget, but McNamara put them in the legislative-citizen commission bill.
Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, is not ready to accuse Republicans of supplanting the environmental budget. Saxhaug said he recognizes and understands the political reality that is talking place.
He said getting the funds to combat aquatic species are important regardless of where the funding comes from.
"We do have to get going on that," Saxhaug said.
Some outdoors advocates said they understand that environmental projects are going to take a hit this year just like every other piece of the budget will as lawmakers struggle to balance the budget.
"This is an extraordinary circumstance," said Garry Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for Change. "The Titanic is going down. They are rearranging a lot of the deck chairs on the Titanic and we are one of the chairs."
Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said the change in priorities since Republicans became the majority party is to be expected. He said the pendulum swings broadly every time there is a change in power.
"It's just the way it is," Dill said.
But other lawmakers think Republican leaders have been too quick to reduce regulations and cut funds to environmental projects so far as they try to balance the budget without raising taxes.
"With LCCMR as a barometer, we would have to be concerned," said Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji. "The potential precedents we are setting do not bode well for environmental quality in Minnesota."
Andrew Tellijohn is a Twin Cities freelance writer working for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.