Averting disaster: a deep dive into the lame duck wetlands bill

The 2018 legislative lame duck session was bad for the environment. On their way out of office, term-limited lawmakers pushed through a number of terrible laws that remove or restrict natural resource protections. But their impacts could have been much worse. Many of these passed statutes started as bills that packed even greater environmental destruction.

Their change for the better owes to strong lobbying and down-to-the-wire negotiating by the Michigan Environmental Council, in consultation with several partner organizations.

Just how this collaboration helped influence policy-making is illustrated in the evolution of Senate Bill 1211—disastrous wetlands legislation intended to remove protections for 600,000 acres of Michigan wetlands and around 4,500 inland lakes.

A bill that’s all wet

Before its introduction on November 27, 2018, MEC Agriculture Director Tom Zimnicki knew what was coming. A week earlier, a Capitol contact had shared a copy of the 38-page bill.

The brainchild of then-Senator Tom Casperson, SB 1211 alters parts of Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act. Among other provisions, it proposed changes to the definition of a wetland and lifted regulations to allow filling, dredging, or construction on certain wetlands and waterways of up to 10 acres in size.

According to a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality analysis, it would put nearly 600,000 acres of wetlands and 4,200 lakes at risk of development.

As soon as he got it, Tom huddled with MEC policy staff and some trusted allies to analyze the bill’s language, research related laws, and study its impact. They also assessed lawmakers’ policy positions and the aims of legislature-controlling Republicans.

“We knew, given the political climate in Lansing, passing SB 1211 was a good possibility,” explains Tom. “Still, we thought we might be able to kill the bill.”

By the time Sen. Casperson unveiled SB 1211, we had a strong campaign of response ready to go. Leveraging the capacities of environmental organizations and conservation groups, it aimed to build public objection to the bill and make lawmakers realize the damage it would cause.

Raising the alarm

The campaign brought together many organizations, including Audubon Great Lakes, Ducks Unlimited, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Michigan Wetland Association, and The Nature Conservancy. Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council Policy Director Jennifer McKay and Michigan Trout Unlimited Executive Director Bryan Burroughs offered wetlands expertise and strategic oversight. The DEQ provided statistical data.

The day after SB 1211’s introduction, MEC issued a press release explaining our opposition. Five days later, we sent emails and social media posts. Campaign partners also launched communication drives that would not let up for the next three weeks. “The goal was to keep public attention on the bill and its negative impacts," says Tom. "Lawmakers are generally responsive when angry constituents are calling and posting stories on social media.”

This effort activated thousands of the organizations’ members, who repeatedly contacted their state senators and representatives. (We are grateful that nearly 1,000 of you joined the chorus!) Continuous outreach prompted dozens of media articles, too, more than 20 of which quoted Tom.

Changing opinions

As lawmakers heard from constituents, the bill moved through the political process.

It was discussed in three committee hearings, two for the Senate on November 28 and December 4, and one for the House on December 18, at which Tom and other partners, submitted oral and written testimony.

When lawmakers weren’t in session, we met daily with many of them, pressing our concerns and hearing theirs. Still, after a few amendments had been made, the Senate voted to approve the bill on December 4.

Then our focus turned to swaying 24 representatives who we determined were hesitating about SB 1211, concerned about the bill’s impacts on lakes and people who had homes on them.

Tom was at the center of it all, tracking behind-the-scenes developments. “As compromises were proposed, I got on the phone with Brian (Trout Unlimited), Jennifer (Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council), and the others,” says Tom. “We were checking with each other every day.”

Eventually, our lobbying started paying off. Lawmakers were pulling their support. By our count, the bill was 10-12 votes short of the total needed to pass out of the House.

In order to save it, Sen. Casperson would have to concede to environmental and conservation concerns. He agreed to modify several parts of the bill to win back enough lawmakers’ support.

Let’s make a deal

“Once these concessions were made, we knew the bill was more likely to pass (than be blocked),” says Tom. “So we spent the final hours of lame duck trying to make as many positive changes to the bill as possible.”

With our input, a flurry of changes were proposed, some were made and then revised a few times over the course of December 20. Governor Rick Snyder’s office joined in the negotiating.

Though not one of his end-of-term priorities, it appeared the governor wanted a version of SB 1211 to be passed as part of negotiations to secure support for other measures he was pushing. So his staff talked by phone to MEC’s former CEO Chris Kolb, seeking reaction and rewrites to amendments. Meanwhile, The Nature Conservancy staff was the go-between with Sen. Casperson’s team on input and changes.

Then, several groups and lawmakers began shifting their position on the bill from “opposed” to “‘neutral.” During the early morning hours of December 21, both chambers voted to approve a watered-down version of SB 1211.

The approved bill restored many safeguards to Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act provisions that were stripped out in the original SB 1211, such as shrinking the size of protected wetlands to 5 acres or less and dropping provisions to deregulate inland lakes. But it also kept some of the other changes, like trimming the list of preserved “rare and imperiled” wetlands and requiring the DEQ to take extra steps when denying applications to degrade wetlands.

“I would never frame SB 1211 as a ‘win’ because it was terrible public policy from the beginning,” explains Tom. “But engagement and coordination that we had with environmental and conservation partners across the state was powerful, and ultimately it allowed us to lessen some of the original bill’s damage.”

By Joe Bower

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