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Special session: As dust settles, some good news for SE Minnesota

Senators David Senjem and Warren Limmer
Senators David Senjem, left, of Rochester, and Warren Limmer, of Maple Grove, talk during debate on the omnibus jobs and energy bill Friday in St. Paul.
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Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Saturday signed bills passed by the Legislature during a special session held Friday and into the early hours of Saturday.

In addition to providing critical funding and avoiding a potential July 1 government shutdown, the bills signed into law do away with a statewide environmental advisory committee, move Olmsted County closer to a housing and redevelopment tax, and target regional parks and trails for funding.

Citizens Advisory Board

Six bills were resolved in the special session, and five passed with little fanfare. The Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Financing Bill was the major sticking point for legislators. One effect of the bill signed Saturday is the dissolution of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency 's Citizens Advisory Board.

For onetime citizens advisory board member James Riddle, of Winona, the legislation is troubling.

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"It closes the door for citizen participation," Riddle said Saturday. "It really restricts the ability of citizens to protect the environment and be directly involved in government."

The MPCA Citizens Advisory Board has existed since the creation of the MPCA itself, in the 1960s, and it only came under fire after challenging a multimillion-dollar dairy feedlot earlier this year, Riddle said.

The MPCA had recommended that the feedlot move forward, but the citizens board asked for further environmental review. The move caused the project to change locations, and Riddle said the citizens board drew the ire of agribusiness.

"That was what has led to this whole attempt to eliminate the citizens board — because we did our jobs, essentially," Riddle said. "If all we did was rubber stamp the staff put before us, we'd still exist."

Olmsted housing and redevelopment

Olmsted County's plan to be a leader in affordable housing creation took a step forward with language adopted in the Jobs and Energy Bill.

The legislative amendment to the county's Housing and Redevelopment Authority allows the Olmsted County Board of Commissioners to serve as the Housing and Redevelopment Authority Board, replacing the previous board of county and city appointees.

The move positions Olmsted County to levy a housing tax that would fund creation of new affordable housing. The county board had previously discussed levying for funds, but was uncomfortable levying for a board of unelected officials.

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The move requires the approval of the city; County Administrator Richard Devlin said he thinks approval will come soon. The county board probably will discuss plans for a housing levy at its next meeting, which is June 23.

"We want to keep moving with this," Devlin said.

A tax might not come right away, but the county is positioned to form a plan and begin notifying local cities of the possibility, Devlin said.

"What we have to do is set it up right now and then notify the cities'" he said. "After that, then we start talking about when the tax would be."

Wagon Wheel Trail

The city of La Crescent received good news about its regional trail system. Approved language in the Legacy Bill provides for up to $400,000 in a grant for La Crescent to design, engineer, acquire right of way and construct a segment of the Wagon Wheel Trail .

The Wagon Wheel project is one of several described in the Legacy Bill's language for the Department of Natural Resources and the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission. The bill allocates $8.6 million next year and $9 million the following year for grants to parks and trails of regional significance.

La Crescent plans to tie the Wagon Wheel trail into the Root River Trail system and provide links to trails throughout southeastern Minnesota and into Wisconsin.

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State averts government shutdown

DMC tax bill passes in special session

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Rep. Nels Pierson, of Rochester, listens in on a media huddle with Sen. Majority Leader Tom Bakk, of Cook, after the Democrats met to discuss votes for an ag and environment bill during Friday's special session in St. Paul.

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