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Senator talking trash: Ruud pushes to recycle state's solid waste tax

A scrap iron heap at the Crow Wing County Landfill off Highway 210. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Like many a contest on the hardwood and in the gridiron, looks like there's going be plenty of trash talk—except this time around it's in the state Legislature.

Talks about the state's trash tax that is.

State Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, introduced a bill that would change the solid waste tax—funds levied from homes and businesses to bankroll garbage disposal and waste hauling— as we know it.

Currently, 30 percent of the solid waste tax goes to the general fund, where it can be allocated to any project or initiative at the lawmakers' discretion. Ruud's bill would look to redirect those monies from the general fund to the environmental fund, where it can be taken back to counties in the form of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency grants.

Going back to the Gov. Tim Pawlenty administration in the early 2000s, Ruud said, it was decided to use monies from the environmental fund (which was particularly robust at the time) to balance the budget—though, this arrangement largely got lost in the shuffle years ago.

"Everybody got used to those funds, so they didn't go back to where they were supposed to," Ruud told the Dispatch during a phone interview Friday, March 1. "I think people lost sight of it. It kinda got lost."

"Counties are struggling to meet their recycling mandates," she added. "This money is supposed to be used by them, to do what we've mandated them to do—yet that money isn't getting to the counties where it should go."

Annually, Minnesota's 87 counties cover over $50 million in recycling costs out of their own budgets through property taxes, while the state's recycling mandates continue to increase costs, Ruud said. That's five to six times what each county gets back from the state, per statistics provided by the County Partnership on Waste and Energy.

Ruud said her participation in the issue was inspired by the current predicament of waste-disposal entities like the Crow Wing County Landfill.

Back in December, the Dispatch reported the Crow Wing County Landfill would be raising disposal and recycling fees—in many cases, doubling them—in order to meet these mandates and break even, fiscally speaking.

As a result, Ruud said, waste disposal services are either raising their recycling rates or considering hikes to meet rising processing costs.

These sentiments were echoed by John Ringle, the environmental services director for Cass County, who described the bill as a welcome reprieve for waste disposal services across Minnesota with thinning budgets.

"The cost to recycle is going up, hugely. The markets aren't there anymore. The value of the recyclables isn't there. We don't process glass anymore. Plastic has been problematic," said Ringle, who noted that decreasing returns from salvage—coupled with rising processing costs—means waste disposal services are often losing money.

"It'll definitely help the counties," Ringle said. "We haven't had to increase our rates, but we're on that tipping point. The waste assessment is just barely covering costs."

Higher rates may also incentivize people to forego recycling and, instead, dispose of items in other, non-environmentally friendly ways, Ruud said.

Ruud's bill would deposit 75 percent of solid waste tax revenue into the environmental fund for recycling in 2020 and 2021, 80 percent in 2022 and 2023, and 100 percent in 2024 and beyond—in incremental structure, she noted, that improves the bill's chances of becoming law.

"In that we're doing it gradually, we're not putting it back all at once—we have a better chance," Ruud said. "Sometimes a little piece of the apple is what you need before you can get the whole bite."

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