By Don Davis
The Minnesota House will not consider agriculture program funding by itself, but rural Republicans who wanted to divorce farm programs from natural resources and environmental spending got their message across Monday as the first week of the 2013 Legislature ended.
The House rules committee voted 15-12 along party lines to back Democratic leaders’ plan to consider the three types of funding in one committee, despite GOP rural lawmakers’ complaints that such a structure threatens ag programs.
House Majority Leader Eric Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said all Minnesotans understand the importance of the agriculture industry and it will not be shortchanged in a committee lead by Minneapolis environmentalist Rep. Jean Wagenius.
“We are going to be judged as a Legislature on our results, not our structure,” Murphy said.
The main voice of the effort to divide the finance committee to give agriculture more prominence delivered an impassioned speech, pointing to FFA members in the audience and saying they need to promote farming.
“We always are the only ones who compromise,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, told the committee about farmers.
“We need to get vocal,” he said.
Republicans passed out a Minnesota map showing the concentration of Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party House leaders and committee chairmen in the Twin Cities. Dots represented 23 top leaders and chairmen in the Twin Cities, with two in Duluth and one in Rochester.
That left one chairman each in smaller towns and rural areas: Dilworth, Austin, Winona and Crane Lake.
Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, who represents suburbs but grew up on a North Dakota farm, told Democrats: “This is a slap against agriculture.”
Republicans said they fear that money set aside for agriculture could to go environmental causes in the new committee, similar to a finance system the GOP had in 2005 and 2006 when it was in control.
Hamilton and other Republicans put Democrats on the defensive. DFLers backed their leaders.
“You are chopping down folks who are your friends,” Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, told Hamilton.
“I would be standing up and hollering if I thought ag was going down,” he added.
Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, said that combining environmental and farm finance in one committee helps farmers. He said that farmers often express concerns about environmental policy but in a joint committee will have more say.
In an interview, the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee’s vice chairman said he will fight for agriculture.
“I think people are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill,” Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said.
As a fifth-generation farmer on his western Minnesota farm, Falk said he is comfortable with the committee and said he expects to carry plenty of influence.
“I think there are a lot of people paying attention,” he said.
Falk promised to try to get DFL leaders to give agriculture programs their own budget, within the overall committee, instead of lumping the three categories together.
Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, leads the Agriculture Policy Committee and likely also will look at several finance bills in her panel. Hamilton wanted her committee to handle all ag finance issues.