Legislative Notebook: Ag Interests Debate Ethanol, Isobutanol


A new way to turn corn into fuel prompted a Thursday debate about giving ethanol a continued priority in state law.

Representatives of the Luverne, Minn., Agri-Energy plant owned by Colorado-based Gevo said current law forbids their new isobutanol product from being mixed with gasoline like ethanol now is. Both are made from corn.

“Current law needs to be changed to allow all biofuels, not just ethanol,” General Manager Jay Sommers of Agri-Energy told the House agriculture committee Thursday.

The committee would not change the law immediately, but many members pledged to work after this session on a bill to allow isobutanol to be sold in Minnesota.

The discussion arose during debate on a bill by Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, to extend until 2016 a law requiring that 20 percent of gasoline sold in Minnesota be ethanol.

“We want to make sure ethanol is the foundation,” Anderson said.

Corn growers fear that without the extension, which awaits a full House vote, that the ethanol industry may no longer continue to grow. Anderson’s bill passed the committee 19-1.

Anderson said the ethanol extension should be considered separately from opening the market to isobutanol.

Gevo’s Paul Dwyer said the Luverne plant, which is being converted from making ethanol, in June will begin producing isobutanol. While a goal is to mix it with gasoline, Dwyer said that isobutanol also can be used for other products.

Dwyer said that Minnesota and Florida are the only states that do not allow isobutanol to be mixed with gasoline, and the Florida governor soon will sign a bill allowing it.

Gevo plans to open a South Dakota plant, he added, and the product can be mixed with gasoline there.

“Do not stifle innovation,” Dwyer pleaded. “Give us the chance to compete in this market.”

School aid upped

The House Thursday approved 74-59 speeding up payments to schools that were slowed when the state faces budget woes.

In the same bill, the House opted to reduce the importance of seniority when school officials decide what teachers are laid off.

Rep. Pat Garofalo’s bill would take $430 million out of state budget reserves to help pay back $2.4 billion the state owes school districts. That would leave $577 million in the reserve, which Rep. Dave Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, gives the state a too-small 21-day cushion.

Garofalo, R-Farmington, said the money would help repay debts previous legislatures placed on schools. Many school districts have been forced to borrow money after the state delayed payments to them.

Democrats complained about the move, saying not only that it hurt the state’s reserves, but it masks a problem of underfunding schools.

“We have been bickering for an hour and a half about how to pay back money to our school kids (stolen) from their piggy bank,” Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said.

Affairs alleged

Attorneys for a fired Senate staffer on Thursday threatened to reveal legislators who have had affairs with employees as they try to prove their client was treated different than others.

Michael Brodkorb’s attorneys said he was fired because he had an affair with former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo. They said Brodkorb may sue the Senate for at least $500,000, claiming “similarly situated female legislative employees, from both political parties, were not terminated from their employment positions despite intimate relationships with male legislators.”

“It is clear that Mr. Brodkorb was terminated based on his gender,” attorney Philip Villaume wrote to new Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, and the Senate’s attorney.

The Brodkorb attorneys responded to a statement released Wednesday night by Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman that claimed the former top Senate Republican aide and communications director tried “to extort a payment from the Senate and to try his so-called claims in the media. ….”

Ludeman said Senate workers are “at will” employees and may be fired at any time. “The Senate handled Mr. Brodkorb’s termination properly.”

The Senate’s attorney said she would fight any attempt by Brodkorb’s attorneys to interview current or former senators and employees about affairs.

Koch was Brodkorb’s immediate supervisor and he was her top aide.

‘Don’t buy Crystal’

Ten Democratic-Farmer-Laborite House members introduced a bill to forbid the state from buying Crystal Sugar products until the firm ends its lockout.

The bill was introduced just before Friday’s deadline for a bill to pass its first committee, so it has little chance of being heard in a committee. Its prime sponsor is Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul.

Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar Co. has locked out more than 1,300 workers since Aug. 1 in a labor dispute.

The bill reads: “The state of Minnesota and its departments and agencies shall not purchase products from Crystal Sugar or its subsidiaries until Crystal Sugar or its subsidiaries ceases all alleged unfair labor practices, whether past or present, that are prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act and rescinds the lockout of the workers with the purpose of resuming negotiations resulting in a collective bargaining agreement.”

Wellstone honor wanted

Rep. Tom Rukavina wants a bust of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone to be placed in the state Capitol.

The Virginia, Minn., Democrat has introduced a bill to honor Wellstone, who died in a 2002 plane crash en route to the funeral of Rukavina’s father.

The crash killed Wellstone, his wife, their daughter Marcia, three campaign staffer members and two pilots.

Synthetic drug ban

A bill to broaden Minnesota’s ban on synthetic drugs awaits a full Senate vote.

A similar bill is ready for House debate.

The bills increase the penalty for selling the drugs to felony levels, meaning up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

“You hear it called synthetic marijuana from time to time, but this is more akin to LSD,” Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay told the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. “There are enormous safety issues and health concerns for the people of Duluth.”

Synthetic drug sales have hurt Downtown Duluth, said Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council. “We have a jewel of a business district that has seen tremendous revitalization, and these businesses deserve to operate without these interruptions.”

The Senate bill sponsor, Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said emergency rooms are busier because of synthetic drugs.

People think that because those drugs now are legal that they are safe, Reinert said, but they are not.

Koch, Brodkorb