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Hearing planned for Olson bill for one natural resources agency

A bill moving the state's natural resources agencies under one effort gets a legislative hearing this week in Bemidji.

Authored last session by Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, the bill calls for a realignment of six agencies and five state departments that deal with the environment and natural resources.

The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee, chaired by Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, will hold a hearing on the bill 1-3 p.m. Friday at the American Indian Resource Center on the Bemidji State University campus.

"Our area has an abundance of natural resources that our citizens utilize every day for their livelihood and recreation," says Olson. "I look forward to the committee meeting in my district because it will offer local citizens, who otherwise might not be able to make it down to the Capitol in St. Paul, the opportunity to have their voices heard on the issue of how we might better structure management of our natural resources."

The hearing will focus on Olson's bill and related natural resources reform topics Chaudhary is in the process of developing. Currently, a number of state departments and agencies, together with local government entities, share environment and natural resources oversight and enforcement responsibilities. Many of the agencies and departments have overlapping jurisdiction; local governments also perform some of the same functions.

Olson's bill would create an environment and natural resources organization advisory committee to recommend a new structure for the administration of environmental and natural resources policies. Included is the realignment of the of the Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Quality Board, Board of Water and Soil Resources, Petroleum Tank Release Compensation Board, Harmful Substances Compensation Board, Agricultural Chemical Response Compensation Board and certain powers and duties of the Departments of Transportation, Health, Agriculture an d Commerce.

Olson says her bill was designed to bring clarity and efficiency to the natural resources management process. By examining jurisdictions and refocusing government agencies, she believes the state can save money while also improving outcomes. It would streamline the process for citizens and businesses that work with management agencies, while positioning the state to be better equipped to deal with outbreaks of invasive species and other critical situations that require an integrated approach.

"Citizens frequently relay to me the difficulty they have dealing with multiple government agencies at multiple levels of government, particularly in the area of obtaining permits," said Olson.

"Removing these overlapping layers and reducing the amount of administrative red tape will make management of our natural resources more efficient and more user-friendly, while pushing our government to be more responsive to the critical needs of the environment. In a nutshell, I hope to save taxpayer dollars while at the same time making this function more effective."

The Bemidji Democrat credits Dann Siems, a BSU biologist, for refining the concept. Siems has studied the history of Minnesota's natural resources management.

"Instead of trying to merge established and resistant entities, we should simply dissolve current agencies and establish an entirely new agency overnight, from the ground up." Siems writes in a Feb. 26 Star Tribune op-ed.

"The global economic crisis, coupled with passage of the Legacy Amendment in Minnesota, provides a unique opportunity for strategic reform.. Because natural resource management activities consume a tiny fraction of our state budget, savings resulting from a shift to a single agency will not alter our immediate financial picture," Siems wrote.

He then outlines what that one agency should look like.

"Dann's knowledge and input were critical in developing the details of the bill. He also has been a tireless advocate for this concept at the Capitol by separately contacting key legislators and other stakeholders," said Olson.

"The structure the state has in place for managing our natural resources evolved in layers, over decades, as the need for oversight in different areas was recognized," said Olson. "Starting from ground zero, and taking advantage of today's technology and advancements in environmental science, the bill envisions a top to bottom look at how we might streamline environmental management, while making it more effective."

She added the bill does not predetermine what the new management structure will look like, but puts in place a two-year timetable for making this determination with input from citizens, local governments, and others.

In addition to addressing overlap and redundancy, Olson's legislation intends to take the politics out of the rules, giving uniformity and consistency to enforcement of the state's environmental policies.

"I often hear that natural resource regulations are not uniformly enforced," said Olson. "This perception, whether true or not, undermines trust in those charged with enforcing regulations and encourages citizens to question -- and sometimes not follow -- rules thought to be unfairly applied. Other citizens use their political connections to influence environmental outcomes. I believe it is important to the effectiveness, efficiency, and integrity of the process that Minnesotans trust that politics have no role in how our natural resources' rules are enforced."

The topic of agency refocus is part of a larger effort in the Minnesota Senate to restructure state government by making state agencies and departments leaner and more efficient, according to Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis.

"In a time when state agency budgets are strained, we have put an added emphasis on legislation that saves the state money, while streamlining the services these agencies provide," Pogemiller said in a statement.

Friday's hearing includes presentations from the Builders Association of Minnesota, Association of Minnesota Counties, BSU natural resources faculty, tribal representatives, lake associations, local government representatives and former DNR Commissioner Allen Garber.

Local citizens wishing to testify on the topic of natural resources management realignment at the committee hearing should contact Olson's office at 651-296-4913 or Chaudhary's office at 651-296-4334.