DULUTH — Several environmental and conservation groups on Wednesday, Oct. 3, filed a lawsuit claiming the 2018 Minnesota Legislature’s move to pay for construction projects with money from the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund is illegal.
The groups, in the lawsuit served to the state attorney general and Office of Management and Budget director Wednesday afternoon, claim the 2018 Legislature “approved an unprecedented raid on Minnesota’s Environmental Trust Fund to pay for infrastructure’’ projects like sewer plants, landfills and water plants.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and other groups contend that, while the projects may be worthwhile, the trust fund was never intended for that type of project, and that the Legislature violated state law when it did so.
It’s the first time in the trust fund’s 30-year history that it has been used for construction projects.
The groups say Minnesota statutes specifically state the trust fund “may not be spent for (the) purpose of municipal water pollution control… hazardous waste disposal facilities …(or) solid waste disposal facilities....”
The groups also claim that using the trust fund money instead of traditional bonds, which are guaranteed in a different way, cost the state an extra $35 million in interest payments for the projects.
The 34-page suit asks the court to declare the spending unconstitutional and to demand the state from spending any of the trust fund money on the projects or issuing any bonds.
The state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund is stocked by state constitutional mandate by the state’s profits from lottery sales and investment income. Projects — such as fish and wildlife habitat and research projects — are vetted and approved by a panel of lawmakers and citizens, called the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, before they go to the Legislature for final approval.
The environmental groups joined Gov. Mark Dayton in saying traditional general obligation bonds, not the trust fund, should have been used for the construction projects.
DFLer Dayton expressed his disapproval of the trust fund spending, included in a last-minute spending bill, in a May 30 letter to Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt. The trust fund provision never received a public hearing. Dayton signed the bill despite his reservations saying other elements were critical to keep state government moving.
Dayton said the Republican-controlled Legislature “shamefully subverted’’ the LCCMR process of vetting each project.
“Even worse, legislators invaded the Trust Fund to pay for another $98 million of projects, through issuing’’ special bonds, Dayton said, calling the move “a devious attempt to circumvent’’ self-imposed legislative limits for general obligation bond speeding.
“Minnesota’s voters approved in 1988, by an overwhelming majority, a constitutional amendment establishing the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund,’’ Dayton noted in his letter to lawmakers upon signing the bill “The intent of the voters, by adopting that amendment, was to dedicate a long-term source of funding to protect, conserve, preserve, and enhance Minnesota’s ‘air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources’ for the benefit of all Minnesotans.”
Dayton and the groups filing suit have urged the next Legislature to reverse the provisions in question.
Other groups pushing the lawsuit include the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, Friends of the Mississippi River, the Izaak Walton League of Minnesota, Clean Water Action Project, Fresh Energy, Friends of Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas and the Minnesota Native Plant Society, Inc.