Ag policy issues elevated in Legislature

MN Legislature

Earlier this session, both House and Senate leadership established committee deadlines that were earlier in the legislative calendar than those in past legislative sessions. The shorter deadlines mean that key policy legislation needs crisp action to adhere to leadership’s strict schedule. By last Friday, for example, all bills that have been introduced had to pass out of committees in their house of origin to remain viable. As a result, agriculture issues received a significant amount of attention during the week.

Ag Policy
An omnibus bill concerning a variety of ag issues was passed by the House Ag Policy Committee late last week. Among several issues, HF 1717 would elevate the debt limit threshold from $5,000 to $15,000 to participate in the state’s debt mediation program. It also extended the state’s Fertilizer Research and Education Council until the middle of 2020 and modifies the structure of AURI. The bill does not give the Minnesota Department of Agriculture authority to begin regulating treated seeds, however.

Buffer Bills
Several bills that seek to improve the state’s buffer law have been heard in committee. One that recently passed the house – HF1466 – more clearly defines the amount of buffer needed in different circumstances: a 50-foot buffer would be needed on public waters classified as “shore land.” Public waters not classified as shore land would only need a 16.5-foot buffer. The DNR estimates that the change in definition could influence thousands of miles of buffers. Other buffer bills that have received initial approvals would:

  • Extend by two years the deadline to install buffers
  • Buffer areas should use seed grown and processed only in Minnesota
  • Pay farmers $40 for each tillable acre that is converted to buffer
  • Enforcement can only occur if 100 percent of the cost to establish buffers is provided

These bills still have several votes ahead of them plus the uncertainty of whether any would get signed into law by Governor Dayton. Stay tuned.

Regulatory
Two other bills in the House recently gained committee support. A bill that would prohibit the Department of Transportation from requiring a permit to mow or hay in state road rights-of-way passed the Senate and is under consideration in the House.

Companion bills that would streamline the environmental permitting passed House and Senate committees last week. The bills would make several changes to the environmental permitting process followed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Pollution Control Agency (PCA). If passed and signed by the Governor, the bill would also eliminate the Environmental Quality Board, which is comprised in part by leaders from the PCA and DNR.

Health Care
A significant amount of federal and state activity is currently under way concerning health care insurance. Early last week, the U.S. House Republicans introduced a bill that would ostensibly dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and replace it with a tax credit for the purchase of health insurance. The credit would be tied to a person’s age and income. Taxes and penalties associated with the ACA would be eliminated but it is not clear yet how the new plan might impact the federal budget or how many may lose insurance altogether.

At the state level, both the Dayton administration and Republican legislative majority have put forth and are promoting what they believe are possible solutions to skyrocketing health care insurance costs. The plans now proposed follow action from the first weeks of this year’s session, when the Legislature and Governor enacted a law to provide temporary relief from high premiums paid by those who purchase health insurance through the individual marketplace and MnSURE exchange.

Gov. Dayton seeks to open the eligibility for the MinnesotaCare plan to anyone who would purchase health insurance through the individual market. Created in 1992 for lower income Minnesotans to better afford health insurance, MinnesotaCare is currently available only to those who earn a maximum of 200 percent of the poverty level. The Governor is asking the Legislature to lift the income restriction. “The result would be higher quality healthcare options at a far lower cost compared to the individual market today,” said Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, in an Op-Ed that was sent to statewide media outlets last week.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the Legislature introduced what they call the Minnesota Premium Security Plan (MPSP) to be managed by the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association (MCHA), which was ended when the ACA took effect in 2014. The plan would provide reinsurance for health carriers operating in the state’s individual health insurance market. By offering reinsurance, insurance providers in Minnesota would transfer to the state a percentage of the costs associated with their higher cost members. By transferring that risk to the state, insurance costs and, presumably, premiums will go down – or at least not rise as sharply as they have in the past two years.

We find it encouraging that the discussion over health care continues to progress, from the nation’s capitol to ours. Whichever way the Legislature and Governor choose to go, we continue to call for 1) Stability in the marketplace; 2) Cost reductions for health insurance premiums; and 3) Preserve access to more doctors and health providers.

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