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Minnesota drought relief plans move forward at the Capitol, but face clash ahead

Both chambers advanced the package of grants and loans for farmers and ranchers after tacking on other provisions.

Minnesota Capitol Dome
The electrolier illuminated the dome of the Minnesota State Capitol building on the first day of the 2019 legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.
Michael Longaecker / Forum News Service file photo
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ST. PAUL — Drought relief payments for Minnesota farmers and ranchers could again be delayed at the Capitol as the House of Representatives and Senate take up plans with a $13 million gap between them.

Agriculture committee leaders in the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-Farmer-Labor-led House for months emphasized the need to get grants and loans out to farmers and ranchers that couldn't draw crop insurance for their losses.

Earlier in the legislative session, it appeared that a $10 million set of grants and loans for producers hit hardest by the drought would have a clear path through the Legislature.

But recent changes to the bill could derail its passage at the Capitol or further delay relief payments from getting out the door.

The Minnesota Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Finance Committee on Wednesday, March 9, advanced a $10 million plan to open up grants to ranchers and specialty crop farmers. But not before the bill's author amended it to include funding to ready the state Veterinary Diagnostic Lab for a possible avian influenza outbreak in the state and putting up $500,000 in grants to deer farmers.

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Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said he decided to alter the funding plan from what the Department of Agriculture proposed to offer more funds for other potential emergencies. And he said some deer farmers should also get aid since some were impacted by the drought and also faced new burdens in complying with laws aimed at limiting the spread of chronic wasting disease.

“We’ve tried to balance our approach with $10 million covering multiple fronts that we’ve heard (with) drought relief being the primary concern,” Westrom said. “It’s going to help them with that unexpected cost because of the drought we had last year and be a partial replacement but a shot in the arm from the state of Minnesota … to help them sustain.”

The additions came after Westrom and other Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate said they hoped to pass a bill focused solely on drought relief. And the grants to deer farmers are unlikely to pick up support from House Democrats, who pushed the law changes aimed at preventing chronic wasting disease's spread from farmed deer herds.

Democrats in the House, meanwhile, added to their version of the aid bill an extra $13 million provision to build out water infrastructure and replace trees and seedlings wiped out last year.

Republicans in the House argued that the grant dollars for trees shouldn't be part of the bill as they could stall out its passage. The full House of Representatives is set to vote on that bill on Thursday, March 10.

Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen on Wednesday told the Senate panel that the department didn't oppose Westrom's plan, but it deviated from what he'd put together with stakeholders.

“The way it’s broken down may not get as much money to our specialty crop farmers," Petersen said, "but again, we don’t know until we start getting the applications how we need that."

If the House and Senate approved different versions of the bill, differences could be smoothed out in a conference committee.

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MORE FROM DANA FERGUSON:
Several incumbent state legislators, particularly in the Senate, edged out competitors with more extreme views on COVID-19, election security and more.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter  @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email  dferguson@forumcomm.com.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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