Minnesota pollution regulator resigns before Senate vote

Published 1:15 pm Wednesday, July 7, 2021

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency resigned Tuesday after it became apparent that the Republican-controlled state Senate was prepared to oust her.

Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said Laura Bishop resigned “in order to ensure a smooth and orderly transition” at the agency she had led since 2019.

“I am extremely disappointed in the Republicans in the Senate who are choosing to use taxpayer dollars to play partisan games and try to politicize an agency charged with protecting Minnesotans from pollution because they refuse to acknowledge the science of climate change,” Walz said in a statement.

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Senate Republican leaders extended the special session last week after they finished a $52 billion, two-year budget, a move that lets them wield their chamber’s authority to conform or reject the governor’s appointments after a contentious several months of budget and policy battles.

Republicans had been critical of the how the MPCA under Bishop bypassed the Legislature in rulemaking for the Walz administration’s “clean car” plan, which aims to encourage drivers to switch to low- and no-emission electric vehicles, a proposal the state’s auto dealers consider burdensome and unnecessary. But they were unable to scrap the proposal during the budget negotiations. GOP leaders also complained about some agency stances on mining and manure regulation.

“It has been an honor to serve Minnesotans in this role. However, I will not allow the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to be politicized. The work is too important,” Bishop said in the governor’s statement. “I look forward to continued work to protect our state’s waters, air, land, and climate for future generations of Minnesotans.”

MPCA Deputy Commissioner Peter Tester was named temporary commissioner of the agency.

The governor’s office announced Bishop’s resignation as a hearing was underway on the confirmation of Jennifer Ho, commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. Ho faced some tough questions about the implementation of the RentHelpMN pandemic rental aidprogram, but none that indicated any senators were building a case for firing her. And at a separate hearing before an environment committee, Sarah Strommen, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, got a ringing endorsement from the Republican chairwoman. Sen. Carrie Ruud, of Breezy Point.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka told reporters the special session would adjourn once and for all after the key votes Wednesday. He indicated it’s possible that his members won’t remove any other commissioners. But he wouldn’t rule out another look in September, when lawmakers are expected to reconvene for another special session to approve plans for distributing a $250 million bonus package of federal aid for frontline workers who risked their lives in the pandemic.

“It’s not an enjoyable experience,” Gazelka said. “It is, ‘Are they doing their job or are they not doing their job?’ And so we don’t take it lightly,”

Democrats tried to force a final adjournment earlier Tuesday to block the confirmation votes and protect the appointees’ jobs, but lost 31-35 after losing a similar move last Friday. Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, of Woodbury, accused Republicans of an “abuse of this process” for keeping the special session going after finishing the budget instead of acting on the governor’s appointments before the regular session ended in mid-May.

And Sen. Melisa Franzen, of Edina, accused Republicans of planning “political theater to demonize some, to say that ‘We didn’t get what we wanted in the budget negotiations so now you’re out of a job.'”

The Senate then confirmed two noncontroversial appointments on voice votes — Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, and Aaron Vande Linde, director of the Office of School Trust Lands. Both men got friendly receptions at committee hearings earlier Tuesday. So did Dean Compart, president of the Board of Animal Health, though the full Senate didn’t vote on his nomination Tuesday.

Bishop was not the first casualty of political tensions between the Walz administration and Senate Republicans.

The Senate removed two Walz commissioners during special sessions last summer — Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley and Labor and Industry Commissioner Peggy Leppink — in disputes, respectively, over Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 oil pipeline and how the Walz administration was managing the state’s pandemic response. Senate GOP leaders have chosen not to act on most of Walz’s cabinet nominations in order to retain their leverage.