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Ag funding bills fails to advance in policy committee

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 03/20/2013 9:06 AM

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ST. PAUL — The bill funding the Department of Agriculture, Board of Animal Health and the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute failed in the House Agriculture Policy Committee on March 6.

The bill went down 8-8 on a mostly party line vote in the normally nonpartisan committee.

This is new ground for the committee, said Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck. The committee discussion dissolved into a series of tie votes on removing language from the bill. The committee hearing was adjourned and the bill tabled.

Anderson said the panel members are starting to see the fruits of separating the policy and finance portion of the agriculture committee. The two operated together during the last session when Republicans controlled the House. Several Republicans cried foul early this session when they were separated. Agriculture finance was put with environment and natural resource finance in a committee chaired by Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis.

"I think this is sad," Anderson said.

The committee hearing got off to a smooth start as Greta Gauthier, government relations director for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, described what was in the bill. Gauthier gave an overview of agriculture, talked about trends and reviewed the department's funding sources.

The discussion hit a pothole when Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, asked about Minnesota Board of Animal Health funding for bovine tuberculosis. Rider language in HF473 specifies $2.2 million will be spent each year of the biennium on bovine tuberculosis eradication efforts. Erickson wondered why that language remained since bovine TB has been eradicated in the state.

Gauthier said it was in error and would be fixed when the bill was amended.

Committee chairwoman Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, asked what happened to the designated TB dollars.

Gauthier said they would be targeted for the board's general operating expenses. Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, asked if the board needed that extra money and what they would do with with it.

It's a 40 percent to 45 percent budget increase, said Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, and they should know how the money is being spent.

Gauthier said the board's funding request was identical with the current biennium. The $2.2 million annually, or $4.4 million per biennium, was part of their overall $9.6 million request for the biennium. The money was legislatively targeted to bovine TB eradication and now will be rolled into the board's budget to deal with other animal disease needs.

The issue was deferred until someone from the Board of Animal Health arrived and wasn't discussed again during the hearing.

Instead, the discussion continued to bump along as Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, asked that they stay on the policy aspects of the discussion because they are the policy committee.

An amendment was made to correct a typographical error that switched the amounts in the agricultural and remediation funds within the department.

Wagenius said it was fine to clean up the inadvertent typographical error, but she urged that the panel leave financial discussions to the finance committee.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, disagreed.

"We can't have effective policy conversations if we don't know how many zeros are behind a program," he said. "I just want to strongly discourage us from. . . saying let's take out the numbers and just talk policy because they are very germane to each other and they are very intertwined. I do understand those decisions will ultimately be made in the finance committee, but how can we effectively weigh the policy and talk about them if we don't know the impacts they're going to have?"

Falk asked that the amendment be ruled out of order since they didn't have fiscal staff.

Poppe asked if the typographical error needed an amendment to correct it and she was assured it would be done in the next engrossment without an amendment. She then withdrew the amendment to correct it.

Two other amendments were then brought forward. Rep. Rod Hamilton offered an amendment to spend 10 percent of the AGRI fund money on agricultural literacy, 4-H, FFA, Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership, Farmamerica, Center for Rural Policy and Development and MAELC programs. Anderson's amendment would direct dollars toward grants for filling stations to install blender pumps.

Wagenius said she wanted to hear the policy discussion, but not the dollar amount. That will be decided in the finance committee she chairs.

"It will be interesting to hear why we would want to take money away from farm to school, take money away from small farms, take money away from biofuels for other purposes, so I'm interested in that discussion; certainly that is something that it would be wonderful to hear from why people would want to take money from those three programs," she said.

"Friends, this is new money and it hasn't been directed to any of these programs, so technically, it's not taking away," Hamilton said.

"Here's an opportunity where we would be able to do something like this and invest in our children and get them excited again about agriculture and develop our next leaders and develop the next business owners and everything else within our state to utilize these very programs we're putting in place in the Department of Agriculture," he said.

He said he brought the amendment to the committee because he remembers the rule chairman Al Juhnke had in the agriculture committee. His rule was that the committee had no rules. They would hear all amendments.

Anderson asked if he could offer his amendment and take out the numbers, putting zeros in their place instead.

Wagenius said she didn't see policy in the amendments; rather they were financial. If the choice of the policy committee is to do financial amendments, then the door is opened to have the finance committee do policy amendments, she said. That wasn't her intention.