Written by John Himle
Elections matter, and the 2016 election will be one for the history books! Regardless of who you supported, elections have a powerful impact in shaping mandates when lawmakers take their oath of office. The good news for farmers and rural Minnesota is a key mandate from the November 8th election: state/federal policymakers need to pay more attention to rural issues and voters.
Hillary Clinton managed to score only a very narrow victory in Minnesota, yet Trump carried 78 of 87 counties and four of eight Congressional races were decided with narrow margins. In the Minnesota Legislature, the GOP widened its control of the state House to a 76-57 seat majority and the Senate flipped to a narrow 34-33 seat GOP majority. DFL Governor Dayton and a GOP controlled legislature will be navigating a tricky political balance as they seek to shape state policy.
So what does this mean for farmers and rural Minnesota?
The primary agenda item for the 2017 Minnesota Legislature is to pass a two-year budget. Everything from school aid formulas to funding human services, to the University of Minnesota and state agencies will be debated until the legislature adjourns later in May. Also, some items left unfinished from 2016 may be considered, such as passing a tax bill and a state borrowing/bonding bill that finances capital infrastructure projects.
Here is a summary of some of the key Legislative issues to watch:
- Tax Policy. According to the MN Department of Revenue, while statewide property taxes have risen 42% over the last eight years, they have increased 114% on farm/rural land. There will be pressure to address farm property taxes in the 2017 tax bill, but, of course, farm tax cuts compete with several other priorities.
- Health Insurance. Many farmers rely on individual health insurance plans and this market has been shaken by significant rate increases, higher deductibles and fewer options as companies have been pulling back from the individual market due to high costs. Expect some sort of temporary “buy-down” plan to mitigate premium spikes, but more significant reforms will be needed to stabilize this market.
- Water. Governor Dayton has made improving water quality as one of his top legacy issues. Expect more ag buffer proposals and agency regulations. There will be proposals to compensate farmers for buffers and/or some tax relief, but any proposal with a price tag automatically faces a tougher road. Also, some activists want tougher restrictions on farm tiling practices.
- Transportation Funding. There is nearly unanimous and bipartisan agreement on the need for more transportation funding, but significant disagreement on what to fund and how to fund it. Advocates will be making a significant push for a transportation funding plan in 2017 but this is an issue that will require significant compromise between the GOP/DFL and rural/urban interests.
- Other issues. There are dozens of other issues of interest to farmers, including streamlining farm/ag regulations, neonics, ethanol infrastructure, funding for ag/food science research and ditch mowing, among others.
A final note: shaping policy is a competitive process. Hundreds of other groups will be competing with corn farmers trying to get the attention of legislators. Many of these groups want policies that are not friendly to farmers and while the 2016 election elevated rural issues and voters, individual farmers and farm organizations need to actively engage in order to shape policy outcomes. Like elections, policy is decided by those who show up and contacting legislators actually does make a difference.
John Himle, Founder and CEO of Himle Rapp & Company, Inc., will be providing updates on the blog throughout the legislative session on issues important to Minnesota agriculture.