How Will the Environment Fare this Session?

“Is there anything else for the good of the order? If not, see you all in January”

Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman
November 1972*

Forty years ago the brash Irish advertising man from St. Paul, Nick Coleman, concluded the “Liberal” caucus of the Minnesota Senate organizing meeting with the above words. Over the next decade of his leadership of the Liberal and later the DFL caucus, he would conclude all of his caucus meetings in a similar fashion.

1972 was the beginning of Coleman’s near decade-long leadership of the Senate and was a watershed election for the DFL. They were swept into power by decisive victories throughout the state. It was then that they began their ascent as the dominant political party in Minnesota, in no small part led by Coleman. It was the first time since the Great Depression that the Liberals had control of both bodies in the legislature and governorship under DFLer Wendell Anderson. Coleman’s hard charging, take no prisoners approach helped gain Minnesota the reputation of the state that made things happen. Along with groundbreaking tax, education and justice initiatives, the policies protecting the environment and our health were advanced under his leadership.

He forged the coalition that was a formula for the DFL’s uninterrupted success in controlling the Senate for 38 years up until the 2010 election. Though he would leave the Senate in 1980 due to cancer, he is fondly remembered as one of the greatest leaders in the Senate.

The 2013 legislative session will kick off under somewhat similar circumstances to those 40 years ago. The DFL will control both bodies of the legislature and the governorship for the first time now in over two decades. Nonetheless, the new legislative leadership in their recent organizational meetings have been casting a far more cautious tone than the rhetoric of Coleman four decades ago by promising not to overreach.

Coleman’s position will now be filled by Iron Ranger Tom Bakk, who rose up through the ranks of the carpenter’s union in northeast Minnesota. He learned the craft of carpentry as a young boy growing up on the Lake Vermillion Bible Camp his father managed. Speaker-elect Paul Thissen comes from the Minneapolis progressive tradition, yet his teacher parents were active in Republican politics around Richfield. Thissen’s first political activism was for Republican legislator Kathleen Blatz, who was later appointed to the Supreme Court and whose father served in the Senate with Coleman.

Though Bakk and Thissen come from quite different backgrounds, they are unified in their message that this session will avoid divisive social issues and focus on substantial budget and tax reform. So where does that leave the battle for the preservation of our great outdoors? Based on the DFL leadership’s selection of chairs of the key committees overseeing environment and conservation matters, their early message is that any proposal will require a balanced approach within the broad spectrum of environmental positions within the DFL caucus.

Thissen has appointed long-time progressive environmental champion Jean Wagenius from Minneapolis to chair the powerful House Finance committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. On the other end of the spectrum, Bakk has chosen fellow Iron Ranger David Tomassoni to lead the Senate Finance division on Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture.

Furthering this balancing act, both legislative bodies have created policy committees for environment and natural resources. The counterbalance in the Senate to Tomassoni will be progressive environmental champion Roseville Senator John Marty chairing the policy committee on Environment and Energy. The counterbalance to Wagenius in the House will be policy chair David Dill, who hails from the far northeast corner of the state and has been accused of voting more often with Republicans on environmental issues than with his own caucus.

Therefore, finding a balance within this broad spectrum on any particular conservation or environmental issue will be essential to move forward. Finding this balance is more important than ever as Minnesota is losing a record number of acres out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and our pristine waters are under assault by aquatic invasive species and growing agricultural pollution. Further, there is been a significant decline in general fund support for our great outdoors. Just 12 years ago over 2% of Minnesota’s general fund went to support critical outdoor investments, but now that figure is only 0.66%.

Finding a solution to these challenging problems facing our great outdoors will definitely be for the “good of the order”.

*The above quoted excellent read on the life of Nick Coleman is the book For the Good of the Order: Nick Coleman and the high tide of liberal politics in Minnesota, 1971-1981 by John Watson Milton, Ramsey County Historical Society 2012. The above quote is found on page 392.

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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