Smooth negotiations lead to ag funding bill
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's agriculture policymakers say they set a pattern that other state budget negotiators should follow.
"I hope we can serve as an example as the ag committee to other committees," Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, said Friday after Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill spending $79 million on agriculture in the next two years.
It likely was the smoothest budget bill negotiations, with much more contentious discussions to come as Democrat Dayton and Republican legislative leaders try to figure out how to plug a $5 billion budget deficit as they write a two-year budget of at least $34 billion.
Legislative ag leaders said the key to their success was to respect each other and to compromise.
"Don't hate the opposition, respect them," House Agriculture Chairman Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said was his mother's advice, which he followed.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, said a vision is important.
"We need to sit down and figure out with the governor and commissioners where we want to be in the end," Magnus said.
Magnus and Hamilton are in Senate and House leadership, but it remains to be seen if the top brass follow their example.
Lawmakers leave Monday afternoon for a week-long Easter-Passover break, and when they come back they face continued negotiations on the lion's share of the state budget.
They have a May 23 constitutional adjournment date for this year's legislative session. If they miss that, Dayton could call a special session, but continued disagreement could shut down state government if no deal is reached by July 1.
Yet to be negotiated are bills funding education, higher education, environment, state health care programs, economic development, judiciary and public safety, state government and transportation. Lawmakers and Dayton also need to agree on a tax bill that includes state aid to local governments.
Republican leaders on Friday said they are firm in their stance that the state will not spend more than $34 billion in the next two-year budget. That is the amount that taxes and fees would bring in, without any increases.
Dayton wants to raise taxes more than $2 billion, mostly on the richest Minnesotans. Republicans pledged again Friday that they will not allow a state tax increase.
The governor said he could sign the agriculture bill because lawmakers closely followed his proposal and removed provisions he did not like. He said if lawmakers do likewise in future bills, the legislative session can end on time.
"It is a good day for Minnesota agriculture," Magnus said as Republicans, Democrats and leaders of the state's two largest farm organizations joined Dayton and legislators for Friday's bill signing.
"It exemplifies the willingness to compromise that you need in politics," added Kubly.
Hamilton said that ag committees traditionally are less partisan than other committees.
The bill cuts the Agriculture Department's budget 5 percent and it spends $13 million to finish payments made for more than a dozen years to ethanol producers.
Also, food safety inspection funding will be increased, as will money for anhydrous ammonia storage tanks inspection.
"We are able to keep our core missions going," Magnus said.
Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said he was especially happy that the bill includes funding to continue agriculture education in schools.
"Fewer and fewer people are born on the farm and rural communities," Eken said.
Eken and Magnus said that agriculture is important to the state economy.
"It is a small portion of the budget, but it has significant impact," Eken said.
Also on Friday, Dayton signed a simplification of the so-called green acres law, which should allow more farmland owners to take advantage of the provision that sets property taxes lower than if land were taxed at a higher rate of developed land.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.