Minnesota lawmakers tackled northwest Minnesota's bovine tuberculosis problem in what was agriculture's top issue this past session.
"We got a lot accomplished this year," Chris Radatz, Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation public policy team director, said Wednesday.
But the Minnesota Farm Bureau measures success not only by what state lawmakers passed but also what they didn't pass, he said. That includes blocking the adoption of California clean air standards and staving off attempts to end state subsidies to ethanol producers.
Radatz, who does most of his lobbying before the state Legislature, briefed Beltrami County Farm Bureau members on the results of the 2008 session related to agriculture, as well as legislation pending or enacted in Washington, D.C.
And he talked about future issues facing Minnesota farmers, such as how climate change provisions will be implemented, and positioning for next year's major rewrite of federal transportation funding.
The battle against bovine TB took center stage of the 2009 session, Radatz said, with a new voluntary herd buyout program in the affected area, which is mostly northwest Beltrami County and Roseau County.
The legislation increased funding to the Board of Animal Health $472,000 for this fiscal year, which ends Monday, and $2.25 million a year for the next two years starting Tuesday for monitoring, testing, eradiation, education and outreach to control and eradicate bovine TB.
The buyout program would have farmers in the TB affected area put down their cattle at $500 a head, and they would qualify for a $75 annual payment for each animal until the management zone is declared Bovine TB Free, Radatz said.
"A big issue for Farm Bureau was getting the bovine TB legislation passed," he said. "It gives the Board of Animal Health the extra authority that it needs to help control and eradicate the disease."
The greatest accomplishment was to gain $5 million to control bovine TB at a time when the state had to fix a $937 million budget shortfall, he said. "That speaks well of the leadership in the Legislature, especially Sen. Skoe and Rep. Olin, who really took the lead."
He referred to Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, and Rep. Dave Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls, who carried the bills. "Sen. Skoe was just so strong on this," Radatz said, adding that Skoe worked to enact measures this year to not fall into the same problems that Michigan has in controlling bovine TB as it delayed state action.
Skoe's "main thought was he wanted to do everything that he could in the Legislature this year, so that in five years we don't say, gosh, if we'd only done this five years ago we would have solved the problems," Radatz said.
"It's not easy -- we could get rid of all the cattle up there, but if we don't address the deer situation, then it's not going to be fixed either," he said. Helpful were culling operations this spring of deer by a number of government sharpshooters, but questions remain whether that practice will be done again next winter.
"The deer hunters don't want this in the deer herd either," he said, as researchers believe bovine TB is being passed from deer to cattle that mingle at feed stations. Part of the new legislation also provides for fencing to separate deer and cattle from feed. A temporary assessment for bovine TB control begins Jan. 1 of a $1 a head for each new animal purchased after that date.
John Gilbertson, a Beltrami County Farm Bureau member and state MFB director, said a question is still of how that assessment will be collected, with a potential agreement with the Dairy Promotion Council which already collects a per head check off.
Rachel Neft, another county member, questioned how the new legislation will be implemented and worried how it will affect future herd development.
Other session provisions include:
E Moving Minnesota biodiesel from a current 2 percent blend of vegetable oil, soybean oil or such, to 5 percent year-round by May 1, 10 percent April through October only by May 2012, and 20 percent April through October only by May 2015. Among other provisions, sufficient supply of biodiesel must be available with 50 percent of the biodiesel produced in Minnesota.
The new law exempts logging equipment from all biodiesel mandates. The exemption sunsets in 2012, and does not apply to trucks used in logging.
E Property tax class rate changes which could save $15 million in property taxes for Minnesota farmers. In effect, the measure lowers the property tax rate for homesteaded agriculture, which is homestead ag land and buildings outside of the house, garage and one acre which is classified differently.
E Farmers can obtain an annual permit authorizing a vehicle or combination of vehicles with a total of six axels to haul raw or unprocessed agricultural products and be operated with a gross weight of up to 90,000 pounds, or 99,000 pounds in winter. Posted bridge weights must still be followed.
The provision is also important for loggers, as it allows an additional 10,000 pounds of finished products to be hauled with a sixth axle, a permit and other conditions. Under the new law, timber and finished products can be transported by vehicles not exceeding 99.000 when seasonal increases are in effect.
E Overriding Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a $6.6 billion transportation funding package increases the state's gas tax by a total of 5 cents per gallon, plus other revenue increases, to improve roads important for commodity movement.
The Farm Bureau also worked to defeat some legislation, such as adopting California's clean air standards. Radatz said states have a choice of adopting either federal clean air standards or California's, which is stricter, but Farm Bureau feared Minnesota lawmakers would lose control if California standards were adopted, which that state can change at any time and Minnesota would also be forced to change.
"Under the California standards, we're concerned that currently a lot of the flex-fuel vehicles that are produced don't meet those emission standards in California," he said. "Ultimately our concern is that this may cause automobile manufacturers to not produce the number of flex-fuel vehicles that they currently are."
Automakers get credits now for the mere production of flex-fuel vehicles, but California standards call for automakers to prove what fuel gets used in vehicles before credits are granted, he said.
Not only would recordkeeping be hard, but half of the nation's E-85 pumps are in Minnesota while today, California only has three pumps. "California has never been viewed as a very ethanol-friendly state," he said. "And if we were to adopt California standards from a state that has not had anywhere near the kind of support for ethanol that we've had in Minnesota ... every decision they make, whatever the California Air Resources Board decides, we have to abide here in Minnesota."
Minnesota Farm Bureau "isn't opposed to clean air, we're not opposed to higher fuel economy standards," Radatz said. "But we support that on a national basis, not on a state-by-state basis."
Minnesota Farm Bureau also opposed legislative efforts to increase the state's sales tax by three-eighths of a percent and dedicate the expected $300 million a year to clean water activities, wildlife habitat, parks and trails, and arts programs, he said. But voters will see that question on November ballots to amend the State Constitution
Radatz said Farm Bureau supports clean water efforts, but questions how money will be spent on wildlife habitat. "There is a concern of how much land will then be bought by the government and taken off local tax rolls, taken out of the hands of local owners, and turned into wildlife habitat."
Farm Bureau opposes increasing the sales tax and it opposes dedicating those funds. "The bigger issue for us, is this the right policy, does increasing the state's sales tax rise to the level of State Constitution amendment? Our members have said no, it doesn't."
Deciding how that money gets spent, he said, "is a decision of the Legislature. The more you tie the Legislature's hands, the more that limits its ability to respond to other crises, like bridges or education or health care," he said.
Minnesota Farm Bureau formed a political action committee two years ago to be able to wage ballot question campaigns that the regular organization can't, said Bob Shepard, MFB chief administrator.
"the Farm Bureau organization is prohibited from promoting yes or no on a constitutional amendment," he said. "It can only be done by a PAC ... The PAC will be encouraging a 'no' vote. We have limited resources, but we will be working probably with the Taxpayers League of Minnesota."
Radatz also noted a list of retiring House members, a list that includes Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji.
"Frank, from my perspective, and from our organization's perspective, was a good legislator to work with," he said. "We didn't always see eye to eye on every issue, but I respected him and he respected you as Farm Bureau members and listened to your concerns. ... He's a legislator that I hope you can send somebody else down there like, or that we need more of, that you can trust his word."