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House Republicans balk at ag committee structure

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 02/19/2013 6:55 PM

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Rural Minnesota can no longer be silent or go along to get along, says Rep. Rod Hamilton.

The Mountain Lake Republican is openly critical of the House DFL committee structure, which puts agricultural finance issues under the jurisdiction of a committee chaired by a Minneapolis DFLer.

Finance issues will be aired in the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Jean Wagenius, a Minneapolis DFLer in her 14th term in the Legislature.

Wagenius said she has visited with just about every farm group lobbyist and spent about an hour with FFA students last week during an event at the Capitol.

Wagenius owns land in Douglas County and her husband, Dwight, grew up on a farm. Her grandfather was a truck farmer. They have trees and gardens on their Douglas County land where research is conducted in cooperation with the Chicago Botanic Garden and the University of Minnesota.

This isn't the first time ag finance has been combined with other areas. In the 2005-2006 session, the Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee was chaired by Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount.

What's different now is that the Speaker is from Minneapolis, Hamilton said. When Ozment chaired the panel, Rep. Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, was Speaker.

"We take our obligation to rural Minnesota and to agriculture very seriously," said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.

"It's unfortunate, I think, that there's been some partisan attacks directed to her (Rep. Wagenius)," Murphy said.

A separate finance budget target will exist for agriculture and many ag issues will be dealt with in the Agriculture Policy Committee.

"I think that Jeanne Poppe, as the chair of the ag committee, is going to do a very able job for this Legislature and for Minnesotans," Murphy said.

Hamilton, who chaired the House Agriculture and Rural Development Policy and Finance Committee from 2011-2012, said he wants to be proactive and raise his concerns early on in the legislative session to generate awareness.

"I appreciate that he has raised the awareness … he has shot the roof off the awareness factor," said Rep. Jeanne Poppe, an Austin DFLer who chairs the agriculture policy committee. Poppe and joined Hamilton and Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, at a legislative panel held Jan. 16 at Minnesota Pork Congress.

A fine line between advocating passionately for an issue and advocating so much that people zone the issue out, Poppe said. She said now is the time to work together and move forward.

Rep. Wagenius is the committee chairwoman and the rural members on the panel will have great influence, Poppe said.

It may or may not be ideal to have environment, natural resources and agriculture together, but it gives agriculture more representation in the environment area.

Going forward, rural citizens and representatives can be concerned about how the committee was set up or afraid if they want, but she will advocate for and be passionate about rural Minnesota.

She's proud to be from rural Minnesota. She was raised on a farm near Houston and was educated in rural Minnesota. Her father was a township officer and Farm Bureau county president.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, says the House Minority Caucus needs to be vocal so rural Minnesota is aware it's being taken over by a Minneapolis majority.

"What needs to happen is the people of rural Minnesota need to be awakened to the fact that issues affecting them are being deliberately controlled by Minneapolis legislators … DFL Minneapolis legislators," Drazkowski said.

Drazkowski, who has served on the agriculture or environment committee since being elected five years ago, said he was removed from the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee this year. He was on the original list along with a rural Minnesota DFLer. They were replaced by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston.

"They made it even more Minneapolis-based when they did that," Drazkowski said.

That concerns him.

"The ability for someone from Minneapolis to understand the culture, the economy and other needs of rural Minnesota is very limited and I think that's … that kind of is the major thing," he said.

Every representative from Minneapolis is a DFLer, Drazkowski said, and they collectively support what he called extreme environmental ideas.

As for why he was ejected from the panel, Drazkowski said he's having difficulty finding answers.

"I've been having a hard time figuring out or actually pinning them down on who made the decision," he said. "The Speaker (Paul Thissen), I have tried to contact him twice, won't get back to me. I've talked to the chair of the committee, Rep. Wagenius — by the way both of them are from Minneapolis — and Rep. Wagenius said she hasn't had any discussions with the Speaker about it . … I find that very difficult to believe, but she's the chair of the committee."

Murphy said committee appointments are made by the Speaker, with names submitted by both the DFL and the Republican caucus. The majority went along with most requests from the minority leader, she said, but the Speaker has the discretion to ensure committees are balanced by geography and gender.

The Rules and Legislative Administration Committee, chaired by Majority Leader Murphy, heard the issue to change the committee structure last week and voted not to act, Murphy said.

The issue will also come up when permanent rules are adopted on the House floor in a few weeks, Drazkowski said.

Permanent rules are changed almost every session and concern how the House operates, including the committee structure, Murphy said.

Out of the 29 House committees this session, 22 are chaired by representatives from the metro area, two are chaired by representatives from Duluth and one is chaired by a representative from Rochester. That means only four are chaired by rural DFLers.

More metro DFLers have seniority, but that is in part because there are more urban and surburban Minnesota than rural Minnesota members, Murphy said.

The DFL majority paid attention to the distribution of authority across the caucus, putting 83 percent of the state's budget in committees chaired by members from greater Minnesota.

"We know Minnesota is a very diverse state, and our caucus is diverse as a result and we need to make sure that diversity is represented and you see it in our leadership, you see it in the committee chairs and you see it in the assignments of people to the committee," Murphy said.

Hamilton said he has talked to Murphy, but he will continue to speak out.

"I want to make sure rural Minnesota is being vocal … I want to be on the offense rather than defense," Hamilton said.