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Republicans want to delay, change vegetative buffers around Minnesota waters; Dayton says no way

The Minnesota Senate Finance Committee meets Wednesday, March 29, 2017. Senate and House budget committees are wrapping up work on a two-year state budget. Maureen McMullen / Forum News Service1 / 4
Minnesota Capitol visitors surround Gov. Mark Dayton Wednesday, March 29, 2017, after he spoke to a rally. Dayton awaits finance bills being debated by legislators this week and next. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 4
Minnesota state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake says on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, a bill from her committee helps fund new election equipment. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 4
Minnesota state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria discusses his environment bill that reduces the size of buffers needed around some water. With hiim in a Wednesday, March 29, 2017, news conference is Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nisswa. Don Davis / Forum News Service4 / 4

ST. PAUL—Environmental legislation going through the Minnesota Legislature could face trouble if it reaches Gov. Mark Dayton.

The Democratic governor has said he strongly opposes a change in his signature environmental policy, requiring vegetative buffers around the state's waters. Bills by the Republican House and Senate would change and delay the 2-year-old law, along with making other environment-related changes the governor may not like.

"I'll veto any bill that has any gutting or delay in the buffers," Dayton has said.

Environment legislation queued up for senators Wednesday night, March 29, and that the House plans to consider Thursday would make changes apparently unacceptable to Dayton. Senators will take a vote on the bill after the House votes Thursday.

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said landowners express several issues with the buffer law, which requires 16.5-foot or 50-foot buffers around water to prevent pollution and sediment from getting into water.

A Department of Natural Resources official told a House committee that a provision in Fabian's environment bill could result in 48,000 miles of buffers going from the 50-foot requirement to 16.5 feet.

"What we are finding out is 50 feed does not fit everyone," said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, author of the Senate environment bill.

The Fabian bill also would delay when buffers are required from this year to Nov. 1, 2018.

Republican Rep. Paul Torkelson of Hanska, the prime author of buffer legislation, said the biggest complaint he hears from landowners is ditches they always thought were private land are being designated as public waters on buffer maps the DNR is creating. Such a change increases state regulations on the ditches.

Torkelson said he looks at the proposed buffer changes as clarification, not an overhaul.

Both bills would ban enforcement of the buffer law unless a landowner receives enough state and federal aid to fund all the work needed to install buffers.

It is not just buffer changes that bother the Dayton administration.

The bills would fund the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and the Board of Soil and Water Resources at lower levels than their leaders want.

Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr told a committee earlier this month that the House bill would not cover his agency's expenses and said layoffs and service reductions could be expected if it became law.

The bills do not include most fee increases sought by the DNR.

In a Wednesday night interview, Pollution Control Commissioner John Linc Stine said the Dayton administration is concerned about cuts to his department, from what had been expected, of about 5 percent. That, he said, could keep the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency from filling opening positions.

On policy, Stine said that requirements in the Republican bills would add time and complexity to issuing permits for sewage treatment plants and industrial air emission permits needed by mines, power plants, ethanol producers and any agricultural processing plant that dries or heats products.

"There is just one more process added," Stine said, adding that many people think the permitting process already is too long.

Several provisions from the House or Senate environmental bill will be part of negotiations on a compromise bill to send to the governor, possibly including:

• Deer hunters using muzzleloader rifles could mount scopes on them. The issue long has been debated and current law only allows hunters 60 years old and older to use scopes.

• Another often-discussed issue also is in the Senate bill, to allow an angler to have a second line, for a fee.

• The state would be banned from further restricting the use of lead shot.

• Blaze pink would join blaze orange as a color hunters can wear.

• The Environmental Quality Board, which coordinates environmental rules across state government, would expand from five to eight members, with one member from each of the state's congressional districts.

• Local governments would not be allowed to ban or tax plastic bags.

• Department of Natural Resources permits would remain in effect during a state government shutdown, which could occur if lawmakers and the governor do not agree on a budget by June 30 of an odd-numbered year.

• Anyone convicted of grossly exceeding hunting limits would not be allowed to obtain a hunting or fishing license for 10 years.

• Bats, snakes, salamanders and lizards would gain extra protection.

Also in front of senators Wednesday night was a state government bill that, among other things, would provide grants to help local governments buy electronic poll books and new voting machines for disabled voters.

Overall, the legislation cuts spending in many state departments 2.8 percent, but some areas would experience a 7.5 percent cut.

The nonpartisan Minnesota House Session Daily contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.