We all must protect clean-water spending

Supplement, not substitute.

Gene Merriam
Gene Merriam

Those are words we will hear often as Minnesota lawmakers and the new governor work to solve a two-year $6.2 billion budget deficit.

The words come from the constitutional amendment that more than 1.6 million Minnesotans approved in November 2008.

Through the amendment, voters raised the sales tax we pay by three-eighths of 1 percent for 25 years. That tax revenue, currently about $250 million a year, is to be spent:

  • Protecting, enhancing and restoring water quality in lakes, rivers and streams and protecting groundwater. (33%)
  • Restoring, protecting and enhancing wetlands, prairies, forest, and habitat for fish, game and wildlife. (33%)
  • Supporting parks and trails, the arts and culture. (34%)

The amendment specifies: “The dedicated money under this section must supplement traditional sources of funding for these purposes and may not be used as a substitute.”

Lawmakers and the new governor must honor both the letter and spirit of that provision. As advocates for clean water and the sustainable use of water, we must be vigilant to ensure that the money dedicated to clean water is used most effectively to protect and restore our lakes, rivers and aquifers beyond what we have been doing in the past. The money must not merely replace other traditional spending on water protection.

Late last month, the Freshwater Society joined other environmental groups, as members of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, in sending a statement to Gov.-elect Mark Dayton. The letter spelled out the principles by which we will judge the budget-balancing process to ensure amendment money is not substituted for traditional spending:

  • Environmental and conservation programs must retain no less than the portion of state General Fund spending they now receive-1 percent of total spending. If cuts are made in those programs, the cuts should be no deeper, proportionately, than in other areas of the budget.
  • When lawmakers and the governor approve a bonding bill to borrow for capital projects, environmental projects should get no less than the 22 percent share they have averaged over the last 10 years.

Just as important as the budgeting principles, the letter to Gov. Dayton urged him to support policies for ensuring the money dedicated to clean water really does protect and clean up our lakes, rivers and groundwater.

The money must be targeted. We must let good science tell us where it can be invested most effectively to protect, enhance and restore water quality. We must not spread this money in a simple geographic something-for-everyone approach.

The voters of Minnesota provided us with a great opportunity to address water challenges over the next 25 years. This opportunity does not guarantee success. Success will require all of us to pay attention and be involved.