Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Agriculture politics flare in early going

Mike Mullen//January 18, 2013

Agriculture politics flare in early going

Mike Mullen//January 18, 2013

Ag finance chair Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, describes GOP objections to committee changes as a “tempest in a teapot” — a partisan attack launched far too early in the session to gain much traction. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
GOP committee challenge pushes regional divide

The first partisan front in the newly constituted Minnesota House of Representatives was established only minutes after that body opened the 2013 session.

After the chamber cycled through a handful of procedural votes, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, rose to challenge the DFL majority’s decision to create the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Division. Hamilton’s criticism hinged on Democrats’ inclusion of those last two words, “agriculture finance,” a budget province that had previously been paired with agriculture policy on its own, separate committee.

At almost the precise moment Hamilton rose to speak, the Republican Party of Minnesota issued a press release blasting House DFLers on the same issue, pointing to the House DFL Caucus’s selection of Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL- Minneapolis, to helm the new committee.

The committee challenge was rejected, twice, by House Democrats: The DFL caucus voted in unison to refer the matter to the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee, which ultimately carried out a party line vote to maintain the current structure.

Hamilton and his Republican colleagues attempted to take the fight from the Capitol to voters’ doorsteps, with a slew of letters to the editor appearing in outstate newspapers, several of which fingered local DFL legislators by name.

Wagenius, the woman at the center of the debate, now describes it as a “tempest in a teapot” — a partisan attack launched far too early in the session to gain much traction. As she saw it, the move by Hamilton and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, was ultimately aimed at House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

“The challenge was not to me, it was to [Thissen],” Wagenius said. “It was to see if he was going to be a weak speaker or a strong speaker, and I think he proved himself to be a strong speaker.”

Agriculture lobbyists say they appreciate Hamilton’s full-throated defense of farmers, and they are preparing to hold the line if urban Democrats fail to consider farming interests.

For his part, Hamilton says he and his colleagues will continue to highlight a perceived imbalance within the metro-heavy DFL majority in the House.

“It’s very concerning,” Hamilton said. “You’ve got a House speaker from Minneapolis, a majority leader from St. Paul, and the ag finance chair from Minneapolis. It’s something that I’ll continue to speak on.”

Ag interests guarded on session outlook

Even though he hadn’t seen a single major piece of agricultural legislation, Chris Radatz, chief lobbyist for the Minnesota Farm Bureau, was thrilled with the opening week of the current session. In a budgeting year, and with a major tax overhaul in the works, Radatz was suddenly hearing more talk about farming than at any other time he could recall in his two decades at the Capitol.

Even better, to Radatz’s way of thinking, is that virtually all of the pronouncements have been positive. In response to the Republican challenge, numerous House Democrats, including House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, declared their own dedication to protecting the state’s farmers. Radatz said the Republicans’ pledge of loyalty and the DFL’s reassurances were a welcome change for his industry.
“I think sometimes there’s a little frustration on our part that we don’t see that recognition of the role agriculture plays,” Radatz said. “We see the finger pointed at us for water quality, air quality — all these issues.”

But the farm-friendly pronouncements of the present don’t rule out the possibility of a less rosy future. Both the Minnesota Corngrowers’ Association and the Minnesota Farm Bureau sent a letter to Thissen questioning his decision to lump the agriculture budget in with an environmental committee.
“We’re concerned that [agriculture] may have a diminished representation, as the budget process unfolds,” Radatz said.

As pointed out by both Radatz and Thom Petersen, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Farmers Union, the agricultural budget takes up less than 1 percent of the state’s overall spending. “Democrats are not going to solve the state’s budget through cutting agriculture,” Petersen said.

More likely, Petersen thinks, farm interests could find themselves defending against legislation that would put farmers who use certain chemical fertilizers and pesticides at a disadvantage.
Hamilton also spoke of prior efforts by liberal DFL lawmakers to push for increased labeling of genetically modified agriculture products and the use of the “derogatory” phrase “pink slime” to describe the controversial beef byproduct.

Faced with these anticipated conflicts, Wagenius said concerns about her favoring organic farming are overblown. Besides, she argued, strong supporters of organic farming live in rural areas, too.
“I mean, most of the organic farmers are outstate, they’re not metro,” she said. “There are no organic farmers in my district.”

Ag regulations off radar for now

Wagenius has already plotted out most of the committee’s agenda for the coming month, and none of it pertains to organic farming or labeling. Instead, she plans to take a serious look at the state’s perilous water levels and the low moisture levels of the state’s soil.

Beyond that, Wagenius will hold hearings on fine particulate matter air pollution in the metro area, which she says results in “humongous” costs to Minnesota’s health care system. If Wagenius’s approach to the issue includes any increased regulations on farms, she may find herself at odds with freshman committee member Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette.

Erickson, whose physically massive House District 2A is dotted with family-owned corn, beet, soybean and wheat farms, said his constituents have asked him to oppose any increased regulations on the amount of dust produced by farms.

“That would be putting an undue, unnecessary burden on farmers,” Erickson said, “and there’s no way I’m going to support that.”

Fully intending to spend his first session voting in farmers’ interests, Erickson was surprised to find himself the subject of a letter, co-signed by Hamilton and Daudt, that appeared in the Bemidji Pioneer. The letter accused Erickson of using his first important vote in the House to put “rural Minnesota’s future in the hands of an environmentalist from Minneapolis.”

Erickson took umbrage to the attack — “to try to paint me with an anti-farm brush, that’s just not right,” he said — and wasn’t the only DFLer to decry Hamilton’s letter campaign. As the rules committee took up the issue of the committee structure, Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, said a critical letter appearing in his area newspaper was “a slap in the face to me, personally.”

At that committee hearing, Hamilton offered several emotional appeals in an attempt to sway DFL lawmakers to change the proposed committee structure. At one point, Murphy thanked Hamilton for his contribution to the discussion, and recognized his “strong voice” on the agriculture issue.
“As we move forward through the session,” Murphy said, “I anticipate that I will hear a lot of your perspective.”

Top News

See All Top News

Legal calendar

Click here to see upcoming Minnesota events

Expert Testimony

See All Expert Testimony