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It was a ' good session for conservation and wildlife'

Environmental advocates made some great strides in the areas of conservation and transit during the 2008 session of the Minnesota Legislature -- but they also had a few missed opportunities when it came to the quest for energy independence.

According to John Tuma, former state representative and current lobbyist for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, one of his organization's biggest victories this year came early in the session.

The Minnesota Legislature approved a question regarding the proposed constitutional amendment known as the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, to be placed on the ballot for the November 2008 general election.

"The voters will get to decide whether to dedicate a portion of state sales tax to the preservation of our land, water and cultural heritage," Tuma said.

"It used to be that 2 percent of the state's budget was dedicated to clean water and the environment -- now it's only 1 percent," he said. If the amendment is approved, however, the additional tax funds will be dedicated exclusively to these efforts, as well as preserving the state's cultural heritage.

"About $10 billion of our annual economic activity centers around the outdoors," said Tuma. "It's part of who we are -- (this amendment) is an opportunity for the voters to show that they value those resources."

The exact question will read, "Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate funding to protect our drinking water sources; to protect, enhance and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game and wildlife habitat; to preserve our arts and cultural heritage; to support our parks and trails, and to protect, enhance and restore our lakes, rivers, streams and ground water by increasing the sales and use tax rate beginning July 1, 2009, by 3/8 of one percent, on taxable sales until the year 2034?"

In addition, Tuma noted, the Legislature made history by overriding Governor Pawlenty's veto of the state transportation bill, thus providing needed funds to relieve traffic congestion, expand transit and improve the state's roads.

"That (veto) was a very rare occurrence," Tuma said.

Developing a coordinated, efficient transportation system in the state is critical for reducing traffic congestion, and thus decreasing the pollution that leads to global warming, he added.

"One-third of all our pollution comes from motorized vehicles," he said.

This transportation funding also includes benefits for rural Minnesota, Tuma noted.

"You will get money for rural transit, in the form of grant opportunities," he said.

In addition, the Legislature provided funding for the new Lake Vermilion State Park and development of the Central Corridor Light Rail Line -- both critical to "protecting Minnesota's future, our economy and our way of life," he said.

One key area where the MEP did not see as much success as they would have hoped, however, was in the area of cleaner, greener energy.

"Last year, Minnesota passed a nation-leading renewable energy standard... that 20-25 percent of our energy is to come from renewable sources by 2020," said Tuma, adding that the standards also included a provision for an 80 percent reduction in global warming pollution sources by 2050.

But this year, when it came to making strides toward achieving those standards, the Legislature fell a little short, he said.

"We came to the Legislature and said we have three things for you to do," he continued.

The first was to pass Clean Car Standards legislation for the reduction of emissions from new cars and trucks, which was defeated by the Senate Business, Industry & Jobs Committee by a 10-7 vote.

"That's one of the big fights we have going into next year," he said.

Another important issue was the Green Solutions Act, which provided funding for cost and benefit studies related to a regional cap and trade system (similar to carbon trading) to reduce global warming pollution.

"We asked the Legislature to endorse a regional plan (for developing a cap and trade system) with neighboring states," Tuma said. "What we got was two studies -- one to study the economic benefits and downsides (of developing such a system), and the other to study how it would work."

The third piece of legislation that did not get passed this session was for laying the groundwork to develop the next generation of biofuels -- cellulosic ethanol, which would use grass and wood instead of corn as its base.

"There were a lot of missed opportunities this session," Tuma summarized. "All in all, it was a good session for conservation and wildlife -- the weakness was in energy issues."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454