Raiding Clean Water Fund damages clean water quest

In 2008, during the Great Recession, Minnesotans voted by a considerable margin to amend the state constitution to increase their taxes. The state sales tax was increased by three-eighths of one percent for 25 years with the increased revenue to be dedicated to four distinct purposes.

One-third of the new revenue is constitutionally dedicated to “…the Clean Water Fund and may be spent only to protect, enhance, and restore water quality in lakes, rivers, and streams and to protect groundwater from degradation….” The constitutional amendment further provides that these funds “… must supplement traditional sources of funding for these purposes and may not be used as a substitute.”

The tax increase went into effect on July 1, 2009, and the one-third allocated to the Clean Water Fund currently amounts to just over $100 million per year. About $750 million has been spent from the fund during the eight years the increased sales tax has been in effect.

Shortly after the constitutional amendment was approved in 2008, the non-profit Minnesota Environmental Partnership commissioned a poll to ascertain the motivation of voters supporting the amendment. It was clear its passage was driven by concern for water more than any other factor.

While over $100 million of additional funds every year to address Minnesota’s water problems might seem large, we recognize that the increased funds pale in scope to the magnitude of the problem.

During the campaign for passage of the referendum to amend the constitution, a constant refrain was “40 percent of Minnesota’s waters are impaired.” That rallying cry did much to raise public awareness and generate support to increase taxes to address the problem.

In 2014, six years after voter approval of the increased tax, the state agencies involved in implementing programs funded by the Clean Water Fund collectively produced a document they described as Minnesota’s Clean Water Roadmap. The “roadmap” established goals for what would be achieved during the 25-year life of the Clean Water Fund. The goals were described as “ambitious, yet achievable.”

Many were surprised and disappointed that the “ambitious” goals reflected aspirational, cumulative, single-digit percent improvements in water quality measurements over a quarter-century.

Not long after this roadmap was released Gov. Mark Dayton announced his buffer initiative, an ambitious legislative proposal that would do much to protect Minnesota’s lakes and rivers from nutrient loading and sedimentation. The buffer law that ultimately passed was a mere shadow of the original proposal, and it was further eviscerated in implementation.

Gov. Dayton has stated that he wants to make water a high priority during his last term in office which ends in 2018. He is currently participating in 10 “Water Quality Town Meetings” from late July through early October. For the past few months the governor’s mantra has been “25 by 25.” His aspiration is to see a 25 percent improvement in water quality by 2025.

While most of the additional funds for clean water have been well spent on efforts that advance the constitutional goals described above, there have been some concerns raised by several stakeholder organizations. These concerns fall into three categories: (1) a substitution of Clean Water Funds for traditional sources in violation of the constitution; (2) a siphoning of Clean Water Funds for other purposes; and (3) a lack of focused expenditures determined by economic and scientific analysis of investment and expected outcomes.

All three concerns were raised by the Clean Water Council, a 28-member, statutorily created advisory council appointed by the governor, in its December 2016 biennial report to the Legislature. Of special note is the council’s observation to some alarming rates of administrative costs being charged to the Clean Water Fund.

The council learned that the Pollution Control Agency charges the fund administrative costs as high as 24 percent, and concluded that to be inappropriate.
The Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR), a nonprofit group involved in water policy, describes the actions of the 2017 Legislature as “… a potentially unconstitutional raid on the Clean Water Fund.” The FMR asserts that the 2017 legislative action “betrays the expectation of Minnesota voters by raiding $22 million in Clean Water Fund money for administrative costs for local governments.” The group laments the good projects that were eliminated or reduced in funding because of the raid.

While better focused and appropriate expenditures of the Clean Water Fund will facilitate better outcomes in addressing water issues, just as the Dayton Administration Roadmap of 2014 demonstrated, spending an additional $100 million plus annually, will not by itself move the needle very much. To really make a significant difference in water quality we need a significant change in how we are using the land, especially the land most impacted by runoff.

Gov. Dayton is to be commended for steadfastly raising concerns about what is happening to our water, but given his current posture of avoiding any consideration of regulation, it is hard to understand how “25 by 25” can be achieved.

Hopefully, when Dayton completes his water quality town meetings the administration’s next task will be to devise a plan with a vision as to what must happen to enable Minnesota to achieve a 25 percent improvement in water quality by 2025.

Without such a plan we must remind Dayton of de Saint-Exupery’s admonition that, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” — An opinion of the ECM Publishers Editorial Board. The Star News is part of ECM Publishers.