A Strong Gubernatorial State

“This is a watershed day for Minnesota’s environment and the health of our families. Mercury is a major threat to our wellbeing, and we need an aggressive approach to attack the problem. This agreement will make Minnesota the national leader in reducing mercury emissions from power plants.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty

April 26, 2006

At the end of the 2006 legislative session many political pundits were surprised to see the aggressive leadership by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty on the question of mercury reduction from Minnesota power plants. Mercury emissions into the air from such sources as coal power plants have been linked to several negative health effects.

The mercury from these coal power plants gets distributed into our lakes and rivers through rain and snow.  This mercury builds up in small organisms and then accumulates in larger fish as it moves up the food chain. It is these larger fish that we consume that could have high levels of mercury that can cause severe neurological and developmental problems.  Recent tests of Wisconsin have shown that nearly 25 percent of men tested have high mercury levels in their systems and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that one in twelve U.S. women of childbearing age have mercury levels considered unsafe for fetal development.

In 2006 a coalition of conservation and environment groups, including Conservation Minnesota, came together under the label of Mercury Free Minnesota. They called upon the Governor and the Legislature to pass a law reducing mercury air emissions by 90 percent by 2011 for coal-fired power plants that sell more than 25 megawatts of electricity. The power companies felt relatively safe hiding behind the veto power of the Governor and their ability to manipulate the Legislature as one of the largest contributors to the election process in the state. The utilities were stunned during the negotiations when Pawlenty’s negotiators from the Department of Commerce and the Pollution Control Agency started to push for an aggressive mercury reduction plan.

Due to Pawlenty’s leadership and the help of House Speaker Margaret Kelleher-Anderson, Minnesota adopted a national leading reduction plan that year. A plan that called for a 90% reduction from our largest coal burning power plants by 2014. Most of these provisions have already gone into place well ahead of the 70% reduction that the federal government was seeking by 2018; a federal plan, by the way, that our national politicians are backtracking on.

Though Governor Pawlenty did not propose the actual mercury reduction plan, it was his aggressive leadership during negotiations that made this national leading environmental effort succeed. Pawlenty backtracked on some of his environmental positions when he entered the presidential race in 2008, but he never indicated that this effort was a mistake like he did on greenhouse gases. This shows a basic principle in Minnesota politics that our governor makes a significant difference in the success of conservation initiatives. Minnesota is considered a strong gubernatorial state when it comes to policy development and this showed the 2006 mercury proposal.

Therefore, in 2010 when Mark Dayton was elected governor expounding strong positions on preserving Minnesota’s great outdoors, we assumed positive things would happen. Unfortunately, a more conservative legislative body made Governor Dayton reluctant to propose any good conservation initiatives. As a result the last 2 years have simply put the conservation movement on the defensive. We are hoping as we move into the next 2 years of Governor Dayton’s administration he will step forward and provide some aggressive leadership. The future of our great outdoors and what we are able to leave to our children and grandchildren need some aggressive gubernatorial leadership in Minnesota again.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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