Capitol Notebook: Ag To Be First Budget Bill Signed

Gov. Mark Dayton plans to sign the first spending bill of the year today, one that gives a small part of the budget to agriculture uses.

The House and Senate Thursday overwhelmingly passed a compromise ag funding bill that spends less than 1 percent of the state’s proposed $34 billion budget.

Dayton said he wants to sign the bill today.

“It is an example of how we can work together,” he said.

Most other budget bills produce strong disagreements between Republicans who control the Legislature and Democrat Dayton. None of them are expected to be completed until after lawmakers return from a week-long recess on April 26.

Senators passed the ag bill 52-9, with the House voting 107-20.

The ag bill drew opposition from Twin Cities lawmakers who long have fought the state paying ethanol producers, a cost Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said has been $350 million in more than a dozen years.

House Agriculture Chairman Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said $13 million in the bill next year ends ethanol payments to farmers.

“We are fulfilling our obligation as a state,” Hamilton said.

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said the bill shows how budget cuts should be made: “With a scalpel, not a meat ax.”

Flood funds sought

The Dayton administration wants $3 million to protect a 129-population town from future floods.

Gov. Mark Dayton visited Georgetown, 10 miles north of Moorhead, last Saturday and on Thursday he amended an earlier public works proposal to include the new request. The new $3 million is on top of $28 million Dayton already recommends for flood prevention in many areas of the state, especially around the Red River Valley.

The Georgetown money would fund land purchase and a dike around the town.

When Dayton visited Georgetown on Saturday, along with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, roads were open. But the community soon was surrounded by muddy Buffalo River water.

The community has erected temporary dikes in many recent years to fight floods.

Dayton has requested that lawmakers pass a $1 billion publics works bill, funded by the state selling bonds, that includes flood prevention efforts.

“The governor has not said he is placing a higher priority on flood issues; the entire proposed bonding bill is a priority for him,” Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said.

Republicans who hold legislative majorities oppose a big bonding bill and many leaders question the need for any bonding bill this year. Besides flood efforts, a full bonding bill could finance a range of projects ranging from repairing college roofs to expanding state parks.

There has been talk of passing a flood-only bonding bill, but no decision has been made.

Senate backs coal

Senators voted 42-18 Thursday to allow Minnesota utilities to use electricity produced by new coal-fired power plants.

A similar awaits a House vote.

The bill especially opens the state to using power from North Dakota, where a new Jamestown-area coal plant is about to begin production. If Minnesota law basically banning new coal power is not changed, North Dakota threatens to sue.

Even if the House follows the Senate and approves the coal bill, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton does not like it.

Stopping short of saying he would veto the bill, Dayton on Thursday said that he prefers to continue existing law that phases out coal plants that pollute the air.

“We want enough energy … but we want it in a clean way,” Dayton said.

Environmentalists joined Dayton in opposing the change.

“Forty-two Minnesota state senators voted to lift restrictions on new coal power projects, signaling that Minnesota is ready to send even more of our energy dollars over the border to North Dakota and other coal producing states,” said Nancy Lange of the Izaak Walton League of America. “Already we are sending $500 million to North Dakota and Wyoming to purchase coal.”

Coal is both more costly and dirtier than alternative fuels, she said.

Bill sponsor Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said that she supports alternative fuels such as wind power, but the state still needs more dependable electricity.

“Man cannot live with renewables alone,” Rosen said.

‘No’ to consolidation

A House committee Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill requiring the Minnesota State Patrol to keep 10 dispatch centers scattered around the state.

State Patrol Chief Col. Mark A. Dunaski told the committee that the issue has long been studied and it would both save the state $1 million a year and provide better service. He said rural centers now often have just one dispatcher on duty, and that person must take meal and other breaks at the radio console.

Dunaski said a consolidated center with more than one dispatcher could deal with multiple emergencies at once, while the existing system can force a lone dispatcher to pick what emergency to handle.

The patrol plans to consolidate the state’s dispatch centers in Roseville, Rochester and Duluth. If existing centers remain in use, Dunaski said, the state would need to hire 34 people to provide adequate staffing.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said that consolidating centers would mean dispatchers know less about areas they serve.

The bill has more committee hearings before reaching the full House.

Game alcohol allowed

The House approved 121-5 a bill allowing collegiate-level summer baseball teams to serve alcohol at games.

Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, said his local team asked for the bill.

Green acres passes

A bill to allow more farm owners to take advantage of tax breaks is headed to Gov. Mark Dayton.

The so-called green acres law has been limited in recent years, but the newly passed bill would allow more to qualify. The law allows property taxes to be charged at a lower agricultural rate instead of taxing land on its value if it were developed.