Pollution control commissioner resigns ahead of confirmation vote in Minnesota Senate

Laura Bishop, who served for 2 1/2 years, had been a top Senate target for removal

By: and - July 6, 2021 2:27 pm

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop was first appointed in January 2019.

Minnesota’s top pollution regulator resigned her post on Tuesday, preempting a Senate confirmation vote on her nomination after Republicans signaled they would fire her over differences in environmental policies.

Laura Bishop, who served as commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for the past two and a half years, had been a top Senate target for removal since at least January. The Senate also held confirmation hearings and a vote on a handful of other appointments from Gov. Tim Walz.

Only three of Walz’s 24 commissioners currently serving have received confirmation votes in the Senate, giving Republicans leverage over the administration as they continue battling the governor over policy disputes on farming, housing and stewardship of the state’s environmental resources. Gazelka said the Senate would vote on only a few commissioners by Wednesday and could act on other nominations during a September special legislative session.

Senate Democrats blasted Republicans, saying they were abusing the Senate’s “advice and consent” role by waiting more than two years to hold confirmation votes. They also were critical of the costs for continuing a special session, which cost taxpayers between $6,000-$8,000 per day to pay for lawmakers’ salaries and expenses, according to the Senate Fiscal Services Office.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he had shared his concerns with Walz over the pollution control agency’s move to implement so-called clean car rules, modeled after California, which would revise emission standards and require carmakers to make more electric vehicles available for sale in Minnesota.

“I don’t know for sure whether or not she would have been confirmed,” Gazelka said. “I don’t think she would have been.”

One lawmaker, state Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, had more pointed words to characterize Bishop’s resignation.

“She put her own head into her noose and jumped, so she’s no longer on the list, but she was a horrible, terrible commissioner, absolutely terrible particularly with that clean cars junk she was trying to ram through,” Osmek said during an appearance on KNSI’s “Ox in the Afternoon,” a talk radio show.

Republicans have long maintained that regulation of emission standards and electric vehicle requirements were not part of the agency’s purview, arguing it was sidestepping lawmakers. In May, however, an administrative law judge ruled the agency had the power to adopt the proposed rules and that they “are needed and reasonable.” 

In a statement, Bishop criticized Republicans for her ouster. “It has been an honor to serve Minnesotans in this role,” she said. “However, I will not allow the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to be politicized. The work is too important.”

She told MPR News that Gazelka had repeatedly attempted to politically intimidate her and said that during recent budget negotiations, his caucus would not support legislation that included the words “climate change,” “environmental justice” or “equity.” 

“I work for the governor,” she told MPR News. “I do not work for Paul Gazelka’s policies.”

Walz in a statement said he was “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.”

He added: “I am proud of her decision to stand firm in her beliefs that climate change is real and to not bend her policies and values in order to get through this disingenuous confirmation process.”

Environmental groups criticized Republicans for pushing out Bishop.

“Forcing Commissioner Bishop out of office at this time, after failing to block the Minnesota Clean Cars rule in the recently completed legislative process, is an abuse of power that doesn’t serve the people of Minnesota, the air we breathe or the bright future we like to imagine,” Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said in a statement.

Deputy Commissioner Peter Tester will serve as temporary commissioner of the agency, the governor’s office said.

Two confirmed, three others waiting

Gazelka on Tuesday defended the Senate’s decision to hold informational hearings on a half dozen appointments, saying Republicans did not bring them up sooner because of the difficulty of budget negotiations. 

“It was difficult to do anything,” he said.

Last summer, Senate Republicans ousted two commissioners: former Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley and former Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink.

The new commissioners for those agencies “are much better to work with,” Gazelka said. 

The Senate voted to confirm two appointments: Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, who was confirmed on a voice vote. Aaron Vande Linde was also confirmed on a voice vote as director of the Minnesota Office of School Trust Lands.

Republicans led informational hearings on three other appointments: Dean Compart, as president of the Board of Animal Health; Jennifer Ho, commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency; and Sarah Strommen for commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Republicans signaled their support of Compart and Strommen.

State Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said he approved of Compart as president of the Animal Health Board. Westrom serves as chair of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Finance and Policy Committee.

State Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, similarly said she approved of Strommen’s performance. Ruud is chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee.

Housing Finance head faces tough questions

It’s unclear if Ho will fare as well. She spent more than two hours before members of the Senate Housing Finance and Policy committee defending her performance at the state Housing Finance Agency over the past two and a half years. The hearing centered on her handling of more than half a billion dollars in federal rental assistance for people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under Ho, the housing agency spent nearly three months setting up a website to accept applications for rental assistance and several more weeks to begin sending out checks, delays that frustrated both renters and landlords desperate for assistance.

While Ho acknowledged the frustrations of people waiting for help, she said she was proud of her agency’s performance given the size of the task at hand: setting up an assistance program nearly 10 times the size of her department’s annual budget with complex and changing federal guidance.

“We were not out first, and I’m glad we didn’t try to be first,” Ho said. “Because we watched some states that raced to get out first but tripped a little coming out of the gate.”

Still, the agency to date has paid out just $11.7 million, a fraction of the $151 million requested from renters so far and the $519 million in federal funding it has to distribute overall.

Ho attributed the plodding pace to the burdensome application process set up by the state, noting about half of the 28,545 applications the agency has received are incomplete and require workers to follow-up with applicants. She promised that the distribution of funds will accelerate in the coming weeks as they work through the backlog of applications.

Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, led the Republicans’ questioning of Ho, pressing her on various problems with the rental assistance program including technical glitches which have led other states to drop the vendor Minnesota contracted with to develop the application portal.

Ho defended her decision to stick with their current portal, noting that the agency has continuously accepted applications since it launched in April while other states have had to pause their programs.

Members of the Housing Finance and Policy committee didn’t vote on recommending Ho’s confirmation since they were not meeting as an official committee, according to Committee Chair Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, leading some members to express confusion over why they were holding the “informational hearing” at all.

Draheim explained that they had a duty to review the housing commissioner nomination, though noted the timing of the hearing during a special session was up to Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.

“This is something that I think should have been done a while ago in all committees, but that’s above my paygrade,” Draheim said.

Deena Winter contributed reporting.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez was a senior political reporter for the Reformer.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.