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Lawmakers tout importance of biofuels to ag industry

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar makes a point Saturday as she visits with a group of Kandiyohi corn and soybean growers at Sunray Square in Willmar. Klobuchar was joined by Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, and Tom Meium, a local staff person for U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, during a session to discuss the importance of biofuels to the nation and to the farm economy. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Biofuels and budgets were the topics when state and federal lawmakers met with farmers Saturday morning.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and state Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, spoke to Kandiyohi Corn and Soybean Growers at Sunray Square in Willmar.

Tom Meium, a local staff person for U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., also spoke during the event.

Klobuchar and Juhnke both talked about the importance of biofuels to the nation and to the farm economy.

Klobuchar said ethanol is often a target in Washington, but farm states have allies in the Obama administration. Juhnke said one of them is the president, who served in a farm state legislature.

In federal energy policy, "we want to make sure biofuels are part of the mix," she said. "We need to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. ... If we pull the rug out from under biofuels, it would not only hurt our state, it would hurt our security."

Juhnke told Klobuchar state officials are concerned about a proposed federal ethanol mandate. Minnesota currently mandates a 10 percent ethanol blend in gasoline.

A proposal in Congress would require E-15 be available only for 2001 model vehicles or newer, but no retailer will set up separate pumps for newer and older vehicles, Juhnke said.

Klobuchar praised the work Peterson has done to promote biofuels and make changes to energy proposals to benefit the nation's farmers.

Meium said Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, plans to open hearings on the next farm bill this year, about a year ahead of schedule because of budget issues.

After the next election, Congress will undertake a major budget reconciliation effort, and many departments could be asked to give up some of the spending approved in their budgets, Meium said.

"It's Collin's opinion that everything is going to be on the table for cuts," he said.

The farmers had a number of questions about animal welfare groups and some of the anti-livestock farming proposals that have become law in other states.

Meium said there aren't enough votes in Congress to implement those ideas on a national level, "but it keeps coming back, and we have to keep fighting it."

Peterson believes that farmers can do a lot to promote agriculture by inviting children and other groups to tour their farms and by supporting penalties for "bad actors" that violate regulations, he added.

Juhnke said the animal welfare groups have been able to get their proposals adopted in states that have initiative and referendum.

"We could have those same issues in Minnesota," he said, but initiative and referendum does not exist here.

Juhnke, chairman of the Agriculture and Veterans Affairs Finance Committee in the House, said the state's budget deficits could lead to a reduction of 7 percent to 7.5 percent in the state agriculture budget.

"That's comparable to others," he said. "We're willing to do our part," he added, but he doesn't want to see his budget cut more than others.

He warned the 30 farmers in the room that "this year is a spring walk in the park compared to what we see coming." It would take a huge improvement in the economy to avoid the budget deficits projected for coming years, he said, but cuts made this year will help in the future.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty will not allow state tax increases, "so what we're doing is shoving it all down to you" in the form of property taxes, Juhnke said.

Juhnke told the farmers that they need to keep telling their story. Agriculture is just one-half of 1 percent of the state budget, but supports 20 percent of the state's economy and 40 percent of the local economy.

"Thank you for helping the Minnesota economy stay stable," he said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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