Even if you’re not a fan of a commissioner, this is no way to run a railroad | Opinion

February 17, 2021 5:59 am

Construction on the Line 3 replacement pipeline was underway near Palisade, Minn. on Jan. 5, 2021. Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

I’m no fan of Laura Bishop, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Bishop and the administration of Gov. Tim Walz supposedly made addressing climate change one of their top priorities. Yet Bishop, who also chairs the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, approved a key permit for the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline. Many of us who oppose Line 3 thought she and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, or MPCA, had plenty of arguments to reject it.

Line 3 is a disaster for the climate fight. The emissions from Line 3 will be “like building 50 new coal plants and operating them for 30-50 years,” according to the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. 

More than half the members of her agency’s Environmental Justice Advisory Group resigned over Bishop’s decision to approve Line 3’s water crossing permits, a decision that seemed to fly in the face of administrative priorities — notably climate change and racial justice.

I bring this up because as the Reformer reported recently, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said if Bishop and the MPCA press ahead with California-style car emission standards, he could push to have her removed.

My first reaction to the Reformer’s reporting was, “Well, there’s something Gazelka and I could agree on.”

My second reaction was, “This is no way to run the state.”

This is part of an ongoing trend in which the Senate has not confirmed hardly any of Walz’s commissioners, which allows them to sack them over policy disagreements or use their confirmation as leverage against Walz. 

Commissioners should get fired for breaking the law, violating ethics rules, or gross incompetence — not over policy disputes.

Last year, with flimsy rationale, the GOP-controlled Senate rejected Nancy Leppink’s appointment to lead the Department of Labor and Industry, and Steve Kelley’s appointment to lead the Department of Commerce.

(Disclosure: I went to high school with Leppink.)

Walz appointed both Leppink and Kelley to their posts in January 2019. The Senate hadn’t gotten around to holding confirmation hearings for more than 18 months.

Leppink’s Senate critics said she was hostile to business.

Kelley’s sin was approving a lawsuit to overturn Line 3’s “certificate of need” in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Republicans have backed the Line 3 project.

The Department of Commerce had maintained throughout the Line 3 hearings before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that Enbridge had failed to prove Line 3 was needed. The PUC ignored that assessment and approved Line 3’s certificate of need anyway.

Kelley took a principled stand to take the issue to court, knowing there would be political blowback. He paid for it with his job.

Minnesota Statute 15.066 outlines the confirmation process. Bottom line: There are no confirmation guidelines. It’s political whim.

At the time the Senate rejected Kelley’s appointment, the MPCA also had a pending Line 3 permit under review. The Senate hadn’t confirmed Bishop at the time (and still hasn’t.) The Kelley vote seemed to be a thinly veiled warning to Bishop, too, that if she didn’t approve Line 3’s permit, she could join Kelley.

The MPCA approved Line 3’s permit in November. Now that it’s over, her job again is being threatened over clean car standards.

Where does it end? Is the Senate strategy to withhold commissioner confirmation hearings until it can extract a major political concession?

This isn’t a uniquely Republican problem. Since 1935, the Minnesota Senate has rejected 18 appointments, six of which were to lead state agencies, according to the Legislative Reference Library.

Steve Minn was rejected twice by the DFL-controlled Minnesota Senate in 2000. Gov Jesse Ventura appointed Minn to be commissioner of of the Department of Commerce and then Public Safety.

The DFL-controlled Senate also rejected two appointments made by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty: Cheri Pierson Yecke and Carol Molnau.

In another partisan vote, the GOP-controlled Senate rejected Gov. Mark Dayton’s appointment of Ellen Anderson to serve on the PUC in 2012.

Should the GOP Senate reject Bishop, it would be the first time the Senate has rejected three gubernatorial appointments to head up agencies.

This is a recipe for tit-for-tat partisan gridlock and government mismanagement — and cries out for reform of our confirmation process. 

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Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Scott Russell is a retired journalist active in efforts to stop the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline.