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Bird flu gets swift action; water debate continues

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, says he’s pleased that Gov. Mark Dayton has softened his stance on buffer strips around bodies of water, adding that “some of the language he used early on was disrespectful to farmers.” (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, says he’s pleased that Gov. Mark Dayton has softened his stance on buffer strips around bodies of water, adding that “some of the language he used early on was disrespectful to farmers.” (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Twice this session, Gov. Mark Dayton has demanded immediate legislative action in response to a crisis related to Minnesota agriculture. Relying on data sets and flanked by experts, the governor has made his case in public press conferences and private meetings.

On one topic, the avian flu epidemic that has decimated the state’s turkey population, the governor got his way, and quickly. Support for direct aid for those farmers was so broad that two separate press statements, one from House Republicans and the other from its DFL author, heralded the relief bill’s passage.

The governor’s other agricultural crisis met the opposite fate. Once a central priority for Dayton this session, the proposal for mandatory 50-foot buffer zones around Minnesota’s lakes and streams now seems off the table entirely, smothered by bipartisan opposition in both chambers of the Legislature.

On Wednesday, as Dayton announced the release of a new Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) report on water quality, the governor said there are “many different sources of the problem,” and that “everyone has to be part of the solution.” It was a far cry from Dayton’s announcement of his buffer strip proposal, where the DFLer had said contamination lay almost entirely at the feet of the state’s crop farmers.

The change in tone was a welcome one to Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who attended the press conference as an observer. Torkelson was nominally listed as chief House author of the buffer-strip legislation, but had repeatedly spoken out against its scope and universality.

“[Dayton] certainly has quite dramatically changed his position,” Torkelson said. “And I appreciate that, because some of the language he used early on was disrespectful to farmers.”

Torkelson did not rebut the results of the MPCA study — namely, that more than half of the lakes in areas with “intense urban or agricultural uses” are unfit for swimming — and said he was still hopeful for compromise legislation this session. However, he observed, he and his caucus were not the only obstacles, as the bill from Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, never received a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee.

The upper chamber is still a cause for concern for Thom Petersen, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Farmers Union, whose members opposed Dayton’s widespread solution, but would support a less strict version.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in the Senate as well,” said Petersen, one of several agriculture lobbyists who met privately with Dayton several days before the report release. “You don’t have a lot of people standing up and waving the flag [in the Senate] on buffers.”

Torkelson said his preference would be to focus on local authority and enforcement of water quality measures, and has weighed increased funding for soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs).

“Money talks, and people listen,” Torkelson said. “But I don’t know that we have to — that has been a part of the conversation to this point: Is it necessary to have state funds to help grease the wheels?”

More state money could prove a helpful incentive for SWCDs, according to Petersen. Just six of the state’s 87 counties have existing water buffer restrictions, though another 30 are mulling similar systems. Other legislation introduced this session could also address water quality, including a bill from Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, dealing with drainage ditches, and Petersen said there are several “vehicle bills” that could be amended; placeholder language for a compromise already exists as part of the environmental omnibus bill.

It was much simpler to strike a compromise on a relief bill on the bird flu epidemic, though the problem is no less vexing. The number of poultry farms affected and birds eliminated has increased on a nearly daily basis. As of Thursday, more than 3.9 million birds were affected, a number that left out poultry populations from “pending flocks.”

The result has been devastating for the state’s turkey industry, the largest in the country, and legislators and the governor have tried to keep pace with the expanding crisis. On Wednesday, a conference committee approved legislation to make more than $900,000 available to both the Department of Agriculture and the Board of Animal Health immediately. The House passed the bill unanimously on Wednesday, and the Senate followed suit the next day.

Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, chief author of the House file, said there were some “politics played” with the bill, and said he is still not entirely sure why the Senate insisted on certain language. Under the bill’s terms, the commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) will need to inform the Legislature of any federal relief funds used to respond to bird flu’s impact or combat its spread.

“My initial motion was to try to get it to the governor as quickly as possible, and to vote to concur… but House members decided they didn’t like that,” Bly said. “They didn’t like the sense that politics was being played.”

That bill’s approval still leaves the Legislature the difficult task of trying to plan ahead, as the bird flu is unlikely to come to a convenient stop before the adjournment date. Bly said he supports the suggestion from Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk that lawmakers could pass a contingency fund that would not require them to be recalled for a special session, as has already been done for flood and disaster relief. Bly suggested such a fund, though it has not been debated yet, could still find its way into a conference committee agreement on the agriculture budget omnibus bill.

Petersen, for his part, said turkey farmers are concerned about the lasting effect of the flu virus, which could still be a pressing issue when the Legislature returns for its regular duties.

“That’s the thing that worries farm groups,” he said. “This could be around for a while, maybe two, three, four years. It’s something we’re going to have to consider, and we have to have resources in place.”

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