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Olson bill combines three state agencies that deal with natural resources and the environment

Dann Siems, an aquatic biologist with the Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District, is slated to testify Monday before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Sen. Mary Olson's bill to restructure the state's environmental agencies. Here, he testifies earlier this year before the panel on protecting the state's lakes and rivers. Minnesota Senate Photo

Three state agencies that deal with natural resources and the environment would be shuttered under a bill authored by Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji.

The state Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources -- as well as other offices and boards overseeing state conservation services -- would be merged into a single state agency that could be overseen by a citizens' board.

"Many Minnesotans are frustrated with the level of overlap and redundancy they see in the state's natural resources departments," Olson said in a statement. "I've heard from several people who've had to get multiple permits from multiple agencies with overlapping jurisdictions. Not only is this aggravating to consumers, it leaves a bad taste in citizens' mouths, especially when they hear about the difficult budget deficit our state faces.

"Minnesotans want to know that their government is spending their tax dollars as judiciously as possible," the Bemidji Democrat added.

Under Olson's bill, the three major agencies would cease to exist as of June 30, 2011, and put in their place would be a new agency which would serve as a one-stop shop for many functions that are currently spread throughout state government.

The bill establishes an Environment and Natural Resources Organization Advisory Committee to determine what role the state should play in environmental conservation and how the state can most effectively and efficiently provide those services.

While one "super agency" is envisioned, Olson said the advisory committee may suggest several agencies.

"This should save money, but that's not the sole reason," Olson said in an interview about the bill. "This may offer some real reform, and that's what we need to do in addition to cuts with a budget deficit."

Olson thought about waiting until next year to offer the bill, but said she was encouraged by DFL Senate leadership to put it on the table for discussion this year. A co-author of the bill is Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, chairwoman of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division, also supports the bill, Olson said, but Senate rules limit authors on bills to five. Her vice chairman, however, Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, is a co-author.

Anderson also has a reform bill that would pull activities related to water from the same agencies and would create a separate water agency, Olson said.

Olson's bill will gain its first hearing Monday in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

'This is a very big idea," Olson said, adding that her bill resurrects a bill carried more than 10 years ago by now Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis. "My bill makes some changes and brings it up to date."

The previous effort aimed for better management by bringing the affiliated agencies under one umbrella, the Bemidji Democrat said. "Things would be more coordinated. My bill would more specifically have a goal to reduce the overall size of those agencies and reduce cost, and also reallocate some of the personnel resources in areas where we need more people, such as enforcement or foresters on the ground."

The bill would start will eliminating top administrators, she said. "It would realign the personnel resources more where they're needed today, but overall the goal will be to make those agencies smaller and save some costs."

The advisory committee will make recommendations, but the bill gives some guidelines for what the new structure should accomplish:

E Reducing administrative personnel.

E Improving accountability to the public.

E Consolidating permitting functions.

E Reducing political influence in the process.

E Enhancing public participation and interaction with the public,

E Improving alignment of services to meet current and expected future needs.

E Utilizing new technology.

E Providing assistance to entrepreneurs engaged in developing green businesses.

"The bill doesn't lay out, nor could I possibly simply lay out exactly how we would get there, but what it will do is provide a couple of years' process to work through this and then it creates a committee that will work with the agencies and local government to determine how this effectively this should be accomplished," Olson said.

The panel will also recommend a governing structure, she said. Pogemiller's bill provided for a commissioner, appointed by the governor, to lead the new super agency.

"That makes me a little bit nervous, regardless of who the governor would be, it seems like a lot of power to be consolidated in one person," Olson said. Wisconsin has a board which regulates that state's large environmental and natural resources state department, she added.

"I don't want to have to make that choice -- I think it's better to put the people in place that can have some public hearings and have that conversation over a period of time," she said. "They can then make a recommendation on how best this can be handled."

The advisory committee would be appointed jointly by the Legislature and governor, and would include citizen environmental experts, local government officials, representatives from soil and water conservation districts and watershed districts, and many others.

Meetings of the advisory committee will be open to the public, and will include the input of existing state agency officials.

A key principle for the panel to consider is "to try to insulate the agency from the political process as much as possible," Olson said. "We want the agency to have accountability to the public is another principle."

She has consulted Dann Siems, biologist for the Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District, on the bill. Sims is slated to testify Monday on the bill.

"He's actually written a paper that goes quite a bit beyond" the bill, Olson said.

"As we attempt to do more with less in state government, we need to be looking for ways to eliminate duplicative services and better utilize technology," said Olson. "This proposal will help us take a long-term, comprehensive approach to protecting our environment and create a new model that takes a 21st century approach to meeting 21st Century needs."

Such a sweeping proposal may not go far this session, or may see many alternations, but Olson said that "people expect us to do something other than just simply cut budges without trying to find some better ways to do things."