Government

How Green is Minnesota’s Government?
–Sarah Ruth Lorenz

How “green” is Minnesota’s government? Answering this question could involve examining various bills and polices. One needs to be cognizant of bills that have gained the legislature’s approval or what policies that are being enforced by state agencies, such as the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Office of Environmental Assistance and the Pollution Control Agency. The ways in which the state approaches issues, such as the management of forest resources, the monitoring of industrial emissions and the availability of grants for the promotion of sustainable living, will have a great impact on our state’s ecological health.

All that said, however, the wide range of environmental policy and complexities of competing interests make it difficult to draw a clear conclusion about the state’s environmental awareness. A more telling approach might be to look at the one area in which the government has complete control over: internal government operations and affairs. Consider following questions, for instance. Do State employees throw out mountains of virgin paper or do they make an effort to recycle and use recycled products? Do agencies consider responsible resource management and demonstrate ease and efficiency in carrying out their duties? The day-to-day details of government operation may seem to have little relevance for the average citizen. Yet, the government is, after all, financed by and operated on behalf of the people. Citizens have the right to determine whether our government sets private industry a good example for sustainable operation or fosters an irresponsible management style.

Minnesota, in keeping with its progressive reputation, does in fact have an office devoted to promoting environmentally responsible governmental operations. The Resource Recovery Office (RRO) in the Department of Administration was created in 1980. Its mission, as explicitly stated in the Department of Administration Report, is to “promote the reduction of waste generated by state agencies, the separation and recovery of recyclable and reusable commodities [and] the procurement of recyclable commodities.” The RRO also encourages state agencies to purchase environmentally responsible office supplies. The certification process for those who buy the state’s supplies includes training on environmental purchasing. Local units of government can take advantage of the state’s expertise in responsible purchasing. A cooperative purchasing program allows them to buy supplies through state contracts, saving them the effort of researching products on their own. In addition, the RRO developed the Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Guide in cooperation with several other offices.

The RRO also promotes responsible disposal of used products. For example, discarded state computers were refurbished for use in schools, and state contracts have been established for recycled latex paint and recycled carpet. Bins for recyclable paper proliferate in state buildings, and agency statistics show that 61% of the weight of discarded materials in the Capitol complex was recycled.

Despite these efforts, state operations still consume massive amounts of resources. For instance, the major bills passed during the budget-making process every two years are hundreds of pages long. The copy machines and printers in the Capitol complex get hardly a second’s rest during the hectic weeks of the session, especially when dozens of amendments are proposed and lengthy bills must be revised and redistributed as changes are made. More reports and studies are distributed than any legislator could possibly read. The lawmaking process is awash in a sea of paper, and many state employees show little reservation about adding to the flood.

Luckily, some common sense steps are taken to reduce waste. Most bills and reports, for example, are printed on both sides of the paper. Laptop computers on the Senate and House floors make it possible for legislators to view electronic copies of bills and amendments being discussed, reducing the number of paper copies needed. Computer technology has also changed operations at state agencies. For example, the DNR recently implemented an electronic licensing system. Such efforts show that responsible resource management has at least entered the though process of government culture.

In the end, it’s the individuals who are elected to office that set the tone for resource management in state operations. Legislators who care deeply about the state’s environmental health not only support responsible policy on the floor, but might also be seen picking recyclable paper out of the trash bin or reminding their colleagues to save a report for the next day’s hearing so that new copies don’t need to be made. Supporting candidates with the integrity to be environmentally responsible in both words and actions will ensure the continued health of Minnesota’s natural resources.