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State Lawmakers Get Far-Flung Help to Pass Environmental Bills

Nov. 23, 2021, 11:00 AM

A New Hampshire state senator got a bill passed protecting wildlife corridors thanks to talks with a Pennsylvanian. Vermont legislators’ tips helped a Colorado representative get a plastic bag ban over the finish line. And a Minnesota lawmaker drew on California and Oregon guidance to draft legislation that would change the analysis of cumulative impacts.

As those legislators and others head back to work in January, they’re increasingly drawing on advice from colleagues in far-flung locations who bear the scars of passing environmental bills in their own states.

They’re being pulled together by the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, an under-the-radar group in Washington, D.C., that sees states as a more effective place to get environmental laws passed than Congress.

To the group’s critics, who include Republican lawmakers, NCEL muscles cookie-cutter legislation through statehouses. But members such as Maryland Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D) say the group serves a crucial role for lawmakers who are pressed for time, short on staff, and under pressure to deliver results.

“You need support—'Oh, Lorig, you’re looking to do something on microgrids, take a look at this state that’s done a lot of good work,’” Charkoudian said. “Environmental policy can be complicated. And there is more and more demand from the public to do something about this mess.”

‘Synergy That Happens’

NCEL is a nonprofit that convenes some 1,000 lawmakers from all 50 states. It doesn’t lobby for or against any legislation or get involved in elections, according to Executive Director Jeff Mauk. Its funding comes from about 20 foundation grants and small, individual donations.

It’s not the only group offering environmental networking. The National Conference of State Legislators has eight standing committees, including one on natural resources and infrastructure, and the liberal group People for the American Way has a caucus enabling lawmakers 35 and younger to share ideas.

About 10% to 15% of NCEL’s membership is Republican, with GOP members like Minnesota Sen. David Senjem and Wisconsin Sen. Andre Jacque regularly attending meetings, he said.

At one of its gatherings, New Hampshire state Sen. David Watters (D) learned from lawmakers in California and Colorado about legislation they had passed to protect corridors for wildlife. Watters wanted to do something about climate change, but “mentioning that can be a third rail in my legislature.”

He opted for the wildlife corridors bill because “animals are going to have to be able to move because of warming temperatures.” He worked with Pennsylvania Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D)—who had done similar work—on strategies to assuage voters’ concerns about private property. The bill became law in 2019.

Watters also drew on the expertise of former Washington state Sen. Kevin Ranker (D) to set up an ocean acidification commission. He then passed along his knowledge to Massachusetts state Rep. Dylan Fernandes (D), who went on to introduce his own measure.

“That’s the kind of synergy that happens,” Watters said.

Idea Transfer

Colorado state Rep. Alex Valdez (D) said he made use of the knowledge at an NCEL conference to secure passage of a 2021 measure phasing out the use of plastic bags and polystyrene products at major retailers and restaurant chains throughout the state.

“Without NCEL, I would never have thought about that as a mechanism on how to reduce carbon,” Valdez said.

Minnesota state Rep. Kaohly Her (D) agreed that one of NCEL’s chief benefits is the transfer of ideas across state lines.

“We learn the best from looking at what other states have done, what has worked, what was controversial, what was the pushback when the bill was heard, what were the different amendments that might have been submitted to help that bill pass,” Her said.

She carried a bill last year that would require agencies to study the cumulative impacts of any new permit or permit renewal. She said she drafted her legislation after attending a meeting where she heard from legislators in Southern states about how the Mississippi River—which starts in Minnesota—affects them.

Her also benefited from NCEL subject matter experts who provided research. Many state lawmakers are part-time, with part-time staff, so outside help is critical, according to Charkoudian.

The NCEL meetings also can serve as a launching point for lawmakers who prioritize environmental issues. Connecticut state Rep. David Michel (D) said he uses the meetings to campaign on issues like plastic bag bans and offshore wind development.

“This could directly influence other legislators in other states,” he said.

Opposition From Right

Not everyone takes a rosy view of NCEL’s work.

New Mexico Rep. Rod Montoya (R), minority whip in the state House, said “it’s a big concern” when state legislators follow dictates from national organizations. New Mexico is very different from coastal states, Montoya said, and green legislation often “doesn’t fit here.”

Similarly, Maryland Del. Jason Buckel (R) said he finds groups like NCEL “troubling, because sometimes the folks who get involved with these organizations want Maryland to go on a list with California and New York. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia are not doing these radicalized environmental things.”

Mauk said NCEL doesn’t provide its members with model legislation. He said he simply considers it important to provide lawmakers with a way to converse.

“If states aren’t talking to each other, a good idea might stay isolated in one state,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com; Tripp Baltz in Denver at abaltz@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com