Minnesota Dems plan big climate push

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) plans to use a massive budget surplus and a new Democratic majority in the state legislature to advance what he sees as the most aggressive measures to address climate change in the state’s history.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks to the media Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in St. Paul, Minn. Minnesota Democrats completed a trifecta Wednesday by winning both houses of the legislature to take full control of state government for the first time in eight years. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) plans to use a massive budget surplus and a new Democratic majority in the state legislature to advance what he sees as the most aggressive measures to address climate change in the state’s history.

Walz’s plans, which he has rolled out in the weeks since Democrats recaptured control of the state Senate in midterm election contests, would set the goal of achieving 100% clean electricity by 2040. He will also push for one of the toughest greenhouse gas emission targets in the nation.

“It’s a pretty big opportunity, I think, for us to pass major climate legislation,” said incoming House Majority Leader Jamie Long (D).

Walz wants Democrats to approve new transit options, bolster a weatherization-assistance program and help schools become more energy-efficient. His plan also incentivizes composting facilities and tree-planting campaigns.

Where some states have had to prioritize climate programs over other spending avenues in leaner budget times, Walz has an added advantage: A projected $17.6 billion budget surplus.

Long, a former chairman of the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee, will be among the leaders tasked with shepherding the measures through a closely divided state House and Senate. House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) is an ally — she previously authored the state’s solar energy standards.

Next year will mark the first time since 2014, and only the second time in 40 years, that Minnesota Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the governorship. But it is a narrow majority: Democrats will hold 34 of 77 seats in the Senate when the new legislature comes into session.

Republican control of the Senate has stymied House Democratic efforts to pass climate legislation in the past, Long said. 

He now expects parts of the $1 billion package passed by the House last legislative session to be revisited, including $200 million for bus rapid transit, $150 million for home weatherization, $100 million to make schools more energy efficient and $25 million to install solar energy systems on universities, wastewater treatment facilities, airports, and other public infrastructure.

Long also said he hopes to advance a proposal from Walz calling for changing the commercial building code to require net-zero carbon emissions by 2036. That is one of the same strategies that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) just signed into law; New York is aiming for an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

The Walz plan calls for carbon neutrality by 2050. Only five states currently have set a goal of net-zero emissions: Hawaii, Virginia Washington and New York. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Hawaii’s law requires carbon neutrality in 2045, Virginia’s law requires a net-zero economy by 2045, and Washington’s law requires a net-zero economy by 2050. Vermont passed legislation in 2020 that would cut emissions to net zero by 2050.

Long also wants Minnesota to create matching fund programs that would make the state eligible for more federal funding, both under the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Biden over the last year.

“Republicans were trying to put a lot of strings on the funding, so we weren’t able to ever get agreement on it,” Long said. “But that should be an early priority for us as well.”

Along with funding for electric-vehicle charging infrastructure, especially charging devices attached to multifamily housing and commercial buildings, Long said he would like the state to provide a rebate to make those vehicles more affordable. House-passed legislation last year allocated $30 million for charging infrastructure and $15 million for rebates on electric vehicles. 

One potential hurdle to Walz’s overall goal of going carbon-free by 2040 is Xcel Energy, one of the state’s largest electric utilities, which has pledged to go carbon-free by 2050. 

“We believe that a 2040 target should include appropriate consideration of affordability and reliability, and we are always interested in working with policymakers to design the best policies to promote a clean energy future,” Xcel spokesman Kevin Coss said in a statement. 

He said the company set its 2050 goal to allow enough time for the needed technology to mature and become commercial and affordable. 

Another sticking point for passing Walz’s clean-energy standard is that current state law counts burning trash as clean energy, something known as waste-to-energy. 

Ellen Anderson, climate program director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and a former Minnesota state legislator, said burning trash pollutes the air of communities near these facilities.

“We would love to see that language repealed,” she said.

This story was updated on Dec. 29, 2022, at 11:40 A.M. EST to note that Vermont also has a statutory net-zero green house gas emissions target. The state was not among those listed by the National Conference of State Legislatures.