A Tale of Two Tims

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Thinking Minnesota, now the second largest magazine in Minnesota. To receive a free trial issue send your name and address to [email protected].

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the time Minnesotans elected Tim Walz, who seemed like the likeable, flannel wearing dad next door, whose “One Minnesota” campaign slogan conveyed a left-leaning, but moderate, message that although disagreements would be inevitable, the new governor would listen to all sides of the debate and look for ways to bridge the divide with a fair compromise.

Minnesotans were justified in believing this version of Tim Walz would be their future governor. As a congressman, he consistently ranked among the most moderate members of House Democrats, according to the nonpartisan site GovTrack, and in 2008 he earned an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

An article in MinnPost detailed how Democrats and Republicans alike spoke to his reputation for being sincere, straightforward, and, generally, pretty likeable: “Jeff Blodgett, a political operative who runs the Democratic organizing group Wellstone Action, says Walz is ‘pretty forthright about his positions, doesn’t play a lot of games— even people who don’t agree with him, folks like that in their politicians,’ he said. ‘That authenticity really stands out for him.’”

This is likely the version of Tim Walz many Minnesotans voted for. Unfortunately, this is not the Tim Walz they now have in the Governor’s office.

Walz lurches left

It did not take long for Governor Walz to part ways with Candidate Walz. More importantly, the Governor has lurched left of the policies endorsed by Candidate Walz.

The gas tax

“The majority of Minnesotans support a modest gas tax increase, because they know it is a way to repair our crumbling infrastructure while protecting our state’s fiscal stability,” Walz’s spokeswoman Kayla Castaneda told the Pioneer Press in December 2018.

Candidate Walz campaigned on a pledge to raise the gas tax, but he was careful never to disclose how much he wanted to raise it, stating only that the increase would be “modest.” Most Minnesotans probably assumed a “modest” increase in the gas tax meant a few cents per gallon, something that was probably worth it, even if they would grumble a little about it.

However, the increase in the gas tax proposed by Governor Walz is anything but modest. The proposed 20-cent increase would propel Minnesota from having the 28th-highest gas tax to fourth-highest, representing a 70 percent increase in Minnesota’s gas tax. The proposed increase in the gas tax, along with increases in vehicle registration fees, would cost the average Minnesota household approximately $300 per year.

Time will tell if Minnesotans feel a 70 percent increase in the gas tax is “modest,” but they should demand a number the next time a candidate for office pledges to raise taxes.

The Enbridge Line 3 pipeline

On the campaign trail, Candidate Walz said he supported the replacement of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline, which was built in 1968 and is operating at half capacity due to safety concerns. In late October 2018, Candidate Walz told the Star Tribune he was satisfied with the Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) decision to allow the project to move forward. “The PUC did rule. We need to follow the process in place,” said Candidate Walz.

Fast forward to February 2019, and Governor Walz has changed his tune. Instead of allowing Enbridge to begin construction on the pipeline replacement project, Governor Walz instructed his Commerce Department to file a petition for the state Public Utilities Commission to reconsider its unanimous decision to approve the pipeline project.

In announcing his decision Walz said, “When it comes to any project that impacts our environment and our economy, we must follow the process, the law, and the science.” However, the Governor also said projects like Line 3 “don’t only need a building permit to go forward, they also need a social permit.”

Delaying the replacement of a corroded oil pipeline that has been under review for four years based on subjective criteria of needing a “social permit” in addition to a building permit is the exact opposite of “following the science.”

Governor Walz’s decision to move the goal posts on a project that has completed an exhaustive environmental review is not the kind of common-sense or fair compromise Walz’s “One Minnesota” theme conveyed.

Energy policy

Candidate Walz campaigned on enacting a 50 percent renewable energy mandate in Minnesota, which would require at least 50 percent of the electricity generated in the state to come from wind or solar by 2030. Enacting this policy would be massively expensive and environmentally inconsequential (see, “Doubling Down on Failure” on page 38), but Governor Walz has again lurched to the left of Candidate Walz, recently unveiling his plan for 100 percent “carbon free” by 2050.

Here too, Governor Walz seeks to appear more moderate while not, in fact, embracing moderate policy positions. For example, Governor Walz paid lip service to nuclear power in his press conference for his energy initiative, but House File 1956, the bill associated with his plan, does not count existing nuclear power as “carbon free,” and it does not lift the state’s ban on building new nuclear power plants that has been in effect since 1994.

Governor Walz’s hollow reference to nuclear power appears to be a bait-and-switch: Nuclear is okay, just not existing nuclear or new nuclear.

What does this mean for PolyMet and other copper-nickel mining projects?

Candidate Walz said he would “follow the science” regarding copper-nickel mining projects in Minnesota. Prior to the election, this statement was encouraging because the Department of Natural Resources had granted PolyMet Mining Company a permit to mine, stating the company had satisfied all of the conditions designed to protect the environment.

Now, Governor Walz’s pledge to “follow the science” is worrisome. In March 2019, the Army Corp of Engineers issued PolyMet Mining the final permits needed for the project, removing the last regulatory hurdle the company needed to clear to start the first ever copper-nickel mine in Minnesota.

However, the Governor’s decision to flip-flop on Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline and his decision to appoint Sarah Strommen as Minnesota’s DNR commissioner—who previously worked as a policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a group that has opposed PolyMet and the proposed Twin Metals Minnesota mine—could mean the nebulous “social permit” excuse might be used to obstruct PolyMet’s path to mining.

One Minnesota?

The about-face of Governor Walz on the gas tax, Line 3, renewable energy, and mining disproportionately harms residents of Greater Minnesota. Residents of Greater Minnesota must drive further to get to the grocery store or the doctor’s office. By appealing Line 3, Governor Walz is depriving northern Minnesota schools of tax revenue. And his “social permit” is worrisome to those who live on the Iron Range and support expanded mining.

Minnesota elected a Governor who cared about the corn fields, the iron mines, and all Minnesotans—not the Governor who takes selfies with freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and caters only to the desires of the hipster North Loop.

Many Minnesotans wanted to give Governor Walz a chance to show he was serious about his One Minnesota message. That ship has now sailed.

Isaac Orr is a policy fellow at Center of the American Experiment, where he writes about energy and environmental issues, including mining and electricity policy.