Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Republicans work with Chamber to outsource environmental permits

Wednesday morning, the Minnesota House Environment and Natural Resources Committee approved a bill that would outsource decisions on environmental permits to private firms hired by the corporation seeking the permit. In a related action, Republicans introduced another bill that would outsource Minnesota hen house security to a firm named FoxCorp.

Rep. Fabian (L) & MCC Lobbyist Kwilas (R)
As an observer at the Capitol, I'm always floored at the influence of lobbyists from the Chamber of Commerce, who seem to do most of the heavy lifting in crafting, presenting, and answering questions about bills nominally authored by Republicans. Today, Chamber lobbyist Tony Kwilas was plastered to the side of freshman Rep. Dan Fabian (R - Roseau) directing traffic. It's one of those things you just don't notice unless you're there to watch the delicate dance between lobbyists, agency representatives, and legislators.

Governor Dayton stole the thunder of Minnesota Republicans last year by issuing an executive order that preemptively adopted another environmental permitting bill. But when someone steals your legislative thunder, well, you make more thunder. Where the first bill set goals for timely permit approvals, HF 2095 would fundamentally change the nature of environmental permits, who writes them, and how they would be evaluated.

Here are some of the lowlights of HF 2095:

1) Corporations are people: '"Person" means an individual; as association or partnership; or a cooperative, municipal, public, or private corporation...'
2) Outsourcing the permit decision: Corporations (whoops, I meant people) can hire their own "permit application professionals" that have the power to submit a draft permit that is "deemed complete and approved" unless the agency denies it within 30 days. The Senate version of this bill would require the agency to find that the application was "clearly erroneous" to deny the permit. Who would the permit application professional serve? Not the people of Minnesota, but the corporation that hired them. This represents a colossal conflict of interest. The agency would then be on the clock to review a permit that they didn't write in a month.
3) Rewarding incomplete work: If an incomplete application for a permit is received, agencies would have 30 days to enumerate exactly how it is deficient. Fair enough, but the submission of an incomplete permit would also start a 150 day time window where a decision would have to be made about the application. In other words, you can submit an incomplete application and as soon as you push it across the desk, the state is on the clock to get you an answer. This provides a perverse incentive to submit incomplete applications.
4) Ten year feedlot permits: Under a provision added through an amendment today, feedlot permits would be issued for a decade.

DFL'ers on the committee offered amendments to remedy some of these problems in the bill but all were defeated on party line votes. Ultimately, HF 2095 was approved as amended, and is now heading to the House Jobs Committee.

The most telling moment of the hearing was when Chair Denny McNamara (R - Hastings) declared that there's nothing that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency does that private contractors don't have the ability to do, and that we shouldn't be naive about the ability of private contractors to process these permit applications. Rep. John Persell (DFL - Bemidji) said he appreciated that comment, and said "I agree, let's not be naive."

Yes, let's not be naive. Ability has nothing to do with it, it's about whose interests are being served. Minnesota's environmental laws protect our air, water, and the property rights of those who live near the operations requiring a permit. Allowing corporations to hire their own regulators is hiring the fox to guard the chicken coop.

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