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Farmers Union members hold lobby day

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 02/13/2013 7:51 AM

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ST. PAUL — About 75 Farmers Union members braved slippery roads to visit St. Paul last week for MFU's annual lobby day.

Members visited lawmakers, Gov. Mark Dayton, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Dayton greeted MFU members, telling them it was the strength of the agricultural economy that helped Minnesota through the Great Recession.

He's concerned about the drought and the impact that will have on Minnesota agriculture if it continues into the growing season. He cheers whenever he sees snow or other precipitation, Dayton said, adding that he hopes and prays the state gets moisture.

Farmers Union member Tim Velde of Yellow Medicine County asked Dayton about property taxes, saying his taxes have risen from $12 an acre on agricultural land to $38 per acre over 10 years. Agriculture is doing well now, and farmers can afford to pay the higher property taxes, but he's concerned about farmers being able to pay when crop prices fall.

Dayton said his tax proposal calls for a property tax rebate and reform. Others are calling for larger reform and his response is "more power to them."

He likened his budget to starting planting season with the tractor that pulls the planter stuck in a ravine. Before the farmer can even start planting, the tractor must be pulled out of the ravine and readied. In the same way, the state has a $1.1 billion deficit and $1 billion is owned to schools. Those must be dealt with before moving forward.

Dayton said it's never easy to change the status quo. It sounds good in the abstract to lower the tax rate and shift it to a broader base, but in reality it's putting a tax on something that hasn't been taxed before.

Most families will pay the same amount of sales tax under his proposal as they do now, he said.

His proposal isn't about his generation. It's about your generation, he said, pointing to the FFA members in the front row.

Dani Leonard and Bethany Anderson, FFA members from South Central Ag Science Academy in St. Peter, accompanied the Farmers Union group and were a little surprised to be called out by the governor.

Both said they came for the experience and were still a little shocked by all the lights in the governor's reception room as TV cameras rolled and photographers snapped their picture standing aside the governor.

The duo were looking forward to learning more as they visited with legislators later in the day.

A group from southeast Minnesota met with Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing. They talked about wind energy, silaca sand, broadband internet and voter identification.

They also talked about the governor's budget. Schmit gave the governor credit for putting the big ideas out there. It's the first budget in 10 years where revenue meets expenditures, he said, but it's only the start of the conversation.

House and Senate committees will hold hearings on the governor's budget, but the Legislature won't come forward with its own plan until the February budget is released in a month or more.

In a meeting with Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, property taxes, transportation funding and the Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation Program were discussed. Hamilton favors targeting 20 percent to 30 percent of the AGRI money to agricultural literacy. Some Farmers Union members advocate that the money be overseen by a governance board.

They also talked about farmer-lender mediation. Farmers Union favors extending the program and keeping the qualifying threshold at $5,000. There's been some talk of raising the threshold.

Hamilton said there is broad support in the agricultural community for section 179 conformity. This would conform Minnesota tax law to section 179 of the federal tax code, which deals with accelerated depreciation.

Many in the agricultural community are still wondering about the Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.

Farmers Union is willing to give the program a chance, viewing it as a proactive, voluntary approach to improving water quality, said Gary Wertish, Minnesota Farmers Union vice president.

Farmers Union also supports the creation of a statewide health care exchange. They want to make sure that consumers are represented on the board that establishes the exchanges.

Another group met with Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester. They talked about wind energy, 4-H and farm business management education.

One farmer told Senjem that he never thought he'd go back to school, but that he works with a farm business management instructor and gains much from the interaction. He asked that Senjem do what he could to keep the program affordable for farmers.

Senjem asked the MFU members if they'd heard anything about puppy mills, which seems to be a perennial issue at the Legislature. They hadn't.

He talked about the importance of young farmers and keeping the family farm intact. From there, the conversation shifted to conservation, with one farmer talking about conservation being displaced. Another farmer said his grandfather and father cared about what they left for his generation and it was his duty to care for the land he was passing on to his children and grandchildren.

Doug Peterson, MFU president, said it was a good day and good turnout, considering the weather. They told their northern Minnesota members to stay home as the roads were in bad winter driving conditions.