Minnesota Pollution Control Agency head resigns ahead of possible firing by Senate
The agency head drew support from Gov. Tim Walz, Democrats and environmental groups and opposition from auto dealers and GOP legislators.
ST. PAUL — A Walz administration agency head will resign her post rather than facing potential firing in the Minnesota Senate, Gov. Tim Walz announced Tuesday, July 6.
Walz in a news release said that Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop had submitted her resignation and that Deputy Commissioner Peter Tester would immediately become the agency's temporary commissioner.
The news of Bishop's departure came minutes before the agency leader was to come before senators for a performance review. The review was scheduled a day before Bishop and two other Walz administration commissioners were to come up for confirmation or possible termination in the Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate.
Walz said Senate leaders informed him that they'd not accept Bishop's confirmation and ahead of that vote, Bishop submitted her notice of resignation. Bishop was appointed by Democrat Walz to head the MPCA in 2019 and had served in that role since, leading a push to rewrite Minnesota's rules around vehicle emissions to allow for the sale of more electric and hybrid vehicles and helping to pass the first-in-the-nation ban on trichloroethylene.
In her resignation letter, Bishop said leading the agency had been the highlight of her professional career and lamented the political climate that led to her exit.
"From the beginning, I have been guided by my core belief that we can have economic growth and protect the environment," she wrote. " For many, the agency can never go far enough in our protections, while at the same time, a segment of the Republican caucus will always believe the agency goes too far."
The "Clean Car" rules irked GOP lawmakers who'd pushed for their removal or delay during the legislative session, but ultimately agreed to let the issue be decided by voters before the rules around vehicle emissions could take effect in 2024.
Walz said Republicans were “choosing to use taxpayer dollars to play partisan games and try to politicize an agency charged with protecting Minnesotans from pollution."
"Commissioner Bishop’s qualifications are clear, and her principles are unwavering. 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,” Walz said. “For all Minnesotans who believe in science, who believe in climate change, this is a loss.”
State lawmakers last week passed a $52 billion state budget right before a key deadline. And soon after, the Minnesota House of Representatives adjourned and members returned home. But the Senate opted to remain in special session.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, last week said that senators would stick around in case the governor vetoed any budget bills and said the extra time was to be used to "trust but verify."
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But on Tuesday, lawmakers returned to the Capitol to consider performance evaluations of a handful of Walz administrations commissioners who'd been running state departments and agencies for more than two years but had not yet received the formal seal of approval from the Senate.
“It is an accountability issue, it’s the one thing that we have that we can hold the governor accountable,” Gazelka told reporters, noting that taking up the confirmations earlier could've complicated budget talks or debates over Walz's now expired emergency powers. “Through the emergency powers, everything was different and therefore took on a different tone.”
Gazelka and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, in separate videos recorded following Bishop's resignation said they'd become concerned about Bishop's policy positions and thought she would've been terminated if her confirmation had come up for a vote this week.
Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen and Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho came up for questions during Senate hearings Tuesday and were expected to be considered for confirmation Wednesday in the full Senate. Also on Tuesday, the Senate approved the confirmation of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board Commissioner Mark Phillips and Office of School Trust Lands Director Aaron Vande Linde with bipartisan support.
Democrats, who hold a minority in the Senate, raised concerns about Republicans' decision to hold the hearings and votes years into the commissioners' terms and after the House closed out the special legislative session. And they noted that two male appointees had received a green light from the Senate with little pushback.
"We’re going to take up a couple of unobjectionable men today and then we’re going to take up a few women tomorrow they seem to have an issue with," Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, told reporters. "I would like to see a reasonable process which would imply that we would treat everybody equally rather than pulling a few out to line them up and take them out. I don't think this process is in any way reasonable."
Senate Republicans in 2020 took a similar tack, removing former Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink and Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley after alleging they'd not performed well in their positions and didn't take a bipartisan approach to their work. Walz and Democrats vocally opposed terminating the two commissioners.