By Amanda Bilek, senior public policy director for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association
Although a couple of weeks have passed since the conclusion of the regular and first special session for the 91st legislature, we wanted to update our readers with some information on policy and program initiatives included in transportation, environment and health and human services budget bills. You can read previous updates on the agriculture finance bill here and the tax bill here.
The transportation finance bill, HF 6, allocated $6.7 billion in transportation spending with nearly $100 million in new spending for the next two-year budget. The transportation finance bill maintained general fund allocations for transportation infrastructure and did not include any of the proposed new revenue increases from the gas tax, metro area sales tax for transit, or vehicle registration fees. The bill did include $55 million for a private contractor to replace the troubled vehicle licensing system (MNLARS) and money to help reimburse deputy registrars.
The transportation finance also included two policy provisions that are helpful to agriculture. The first enables a list of agricultural products that can be hauled under a special overweight vehicle permit, and the list of products includes corn and corn by products in addition to other commodities, livestock and fluid milk. The second provision allows an individual to use a restricted license for farm work no matter the farm business structure and expands the allowable driving radius from 20 to 40 miles.
The environment and natural resources policy and finance bill, SF 7, appropriates $338 million from the general fund for state agency operations at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Board of Water and Soil Resources. The final budget agreement is a $14.7 million increase from the previous two-year budget cycle. The final budget agreement did not include new funding for a general Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on nitrate in southeast Minnesota groundwater
There are two policy items related to environmental permitting and review that are worth noting for corn farmers. The first clarifies that a responsible government unit may extend the 30-day comment period for an Environmental Assessment Workshop for an additional 30-days, but any further extension on the comment period would need to be approved by the project proposer. This provision will provide more certainty to project proposers on permitting timelines.
The second policy provision directs the MPCA to have external peer review conducted on all new and revised numeric water quality standards, and provides for the process of conducting the peer review and the development of technical support documents for the water quality standards. This provision puts in statute a guidance memo previous MPCA Commissioner Stine issued.
There were three policy provisions not included in the final environment and natural resources compromise agreement that the Minnesota Corn Growers Association was watching closely. Those provisions are related to reinstatement of the MPCA citizen’s board, prohibiting neonicotinoid treated seeds on all DNR wildlife management areas and designating the new state bee as endangered.
Finally, in the area of health and human services, SF 12, the most notable provision for farmers is the extension of the reinsurance program for two years. Many farmers purchase health care coverage through the individual market and the reinsurance program aims to help stabilize rates in the individual health insurance market. The final health and human services bill also includes a provision aimed at increasing transparency of health care costs by requiring disclosure of additional fees by clinics associated with hospitals.
Overall, the outcomes from the legislative session included several positive initiatives for agriculture. Property tax relief through an increase in the Ag2School credit and tax certainty through federal conformity are certainly highlights for agriculture. In addition, the agricultural finance bill maintains critical investments in agricultural research, as well as important services for farmers while increasing investments for new initiatives.
MCGA thanks legislative leaders, key committee chairs, legislative champions for agriculture issues and Governor Walz for working together to craft a two-year budget that benefits farmers and rural communities.