Minnesota State Legislators return to St. Paul on April 18 with a significant number of issues to address during the closing five weeks of the 2017 session. Leaders in both the House and Senate established earlier committee deadlines to better manage larger pieces legislation before the session is scheduled to end and to avoid the potential for a special session. As a result, several bills with impacts to the agriculture sector could be taken up soon.
The Legislature and Gov. Dayton must approve a new, two-year state budget that takes effect on July 1. Not wanting the Governor to call a special session and to avoid a state government shutdown, legislative leaders are working to approve budget legislation on a schedule that provides sufficient time to negotiate a final bill with the Dayton administration. Prior to leaving on the legislative Spring Break, Gov. Dayton communicated several messages to lawmakers concerning budget legislation, including his desire for them to:
- Separate budget and policy legislation
- Make sure budget numbers “add up”
- Prepare for compromise
BUFFER LAW IMPROVEMENT
Proposals to modify the state’s water buffer law are under active consideration by legislators despite resistance by Gov. Dayton to make any changes in it. The Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) advocates improving the state’s buffer law by correcting its defective provisions. Proposed legislation in the House and Senate would push back the implementation date to Nov. 1, 2018 for buffers or alternative water-quality practices, allowing time for farmers to become compliant. It would also clarify that 50-foot buffers are only needed on public waters classified as “shore-land” and those lacking that designation would only require 16.5-foot buffers. The DNR recently testified this change would affect about 48,000 miles of buffers.
WATER QUALITY STUDIES
The results of two significant water quality studies were issued in early April. Both validate MCGA’s assertion that the state must address all water quality issues on a statewide basis rather than focus solely on the agriculture sector.
A study recently released by the University of Minnesota tracked phosphorus and nitrogen levels found in the Twin Cities region of the Mississippi River to their respective sources. The report disclosed that 76 percent of the elevated phosphorus levels resulted from pet waste. Elevated levels of nitrogen result from the (over) use of lawn fertilizer in the urban and suburban areas. The report also noted that the conduit between a homeowner’s yard and the Mississippi River is the urban wastewater drainage system, which efficiently drains water from lawns, parking lots and streets.
Another study by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies similarly concludes roadways are triggering increased levels of salt in the state’s lakes, which can kill aquatic wildlife. Even though MnDOT has reduced the amount of salt it puts on roadways during winter months, years of salt use appears to have taken its toll. Approximately 40 lakes and streams in the Twin Cities metro area are considered impaired, with chloride levels exceeding water quality standards. The study also warms more than 7,700 lakes in a 10-state region may have rising salt levels.
MCGA believes the state needs to take a “macro approach” in addressing all impacts to water quality – from homeowners to industry and even from governmental units.
The Governor signed a bill that temporarily forbids the Minnesota Department of Transportation from requiring a permit to mow or hay in state highway rights-of-way. Last December, MnDOT announced its plan to require a permit for ditch mowing, and ag organizations, including MCGA, immediately called for a bill to prevent the practice. The moratorium will only last one year, however, and MnDOT will need to recommend a replacement procedure for permits to mow or hay in rights-of-way. The recommendation must be developed with input from agriculture and environmental groups and address the process, access priorities and wildlife habitat concerns.
Before leaving on Spring Break, the Republican-controlled House passed an omnibus health bill that contained a provision to eliminate the MNsure health insurance exchange and revert to using the federal exchange instead. Supporters explain that the move will save the state millions of dollars while continuing to provide customers in the individual market a vehicle to purchase health insurance.
A total of 11 states and the District of Columbia currently offer state-run health insurance exchanges. Gov. Dayton opposes the elimination of the MNsure exchange and its CEO, Allison O’Toole, has recently embarked on a statewide media tour to explain the value behind the MNsure exchange and to discuss the recently passed reinsurance law.
SPRING BREAK COMMUNICATIONS
During the legislative Spring Break, MCGA called on its members and all of rural Minnesota to contact legislators and reiterate Greater Minnesota’s views concerning key ag-related issues. Harold Wolle, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association was featured on a statewide radio feed as well as authored a prominent opinion editorial that appeared in several newspapers. In addition, MCGA scheduled interviews with several media outlets to raise awareness of key issues that need to be decided in the closing weeks of the Legislature.
MCGA recommends that you contact your state senator and representative by email to express your opinions about these key issues. You can contact your House member by clicking here and you can find your Senator by clicking here.