Ag chairwomen take action to give farmers bigger committee voice

Wagenius

By Don Davis

Patrick Lunemann is not convinced the agriculture industry will get a fair shake from a Minnesota House committee that decides farm program funding, even after farmers learned of a change to give them more of a voice.

“It is to be determined whether it is going to work,” the Clarissa dairy and crop farmer said Tuesday after the two House agriculture chairwomen discussed the issue with the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council.

The chairwomen announced that the House Agriculture Policy Committee will join the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee when it discusses farm program financing.

It is an effort to answer strong criticism rural Republican legislators leveled against Democrats who control the House. They say ag funding is threatened to be overwhelmed by the other issues, especially since the finance committee chairwoman is a strong environmentalist.

Lunemann, Minnesota Milk Producers Association president, said farmers around the state are talking about the new House committee structure that combines environmental, natural resources and agriculture programs in one finance committee. On Tuesday, farmers learned from Chairwoman Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, that her committee also will deal with outdoors-related programs funded by a sales tax increase voters approved in 2008.

“There is some skepticism,” Lunemann said of farmers’ feelings about whether the committee will hear their concerns.

Republican lawmakers were more blunt.

“It’s impossible,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said.

Torkelson said all of those tasks cannot be fit into the scheduled twice-a-week committee meetings. However, Wagenius said she is scheduling night meetings, but admitted it will be difficult to fit all of the work into the available time.

Wagenius said it was her idea to invite a committee chaired by Rep. Jeanne Hoppe, DFL-Austin, to her meeting when farm programs are discussed. While Agriculture Policy Committee members would not have vote in the finance committee, they could ask questions and make comments.

Poppe said the joint committee meetings will give her committee members a chance to “provide some guidance” to the Wagenius committee.

Poppe’s committee is dominated by farm-area representatives, while the Wagenius panel does not have an ag majority. Some lawmakers belong to both committees.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and other Republicans brought up the issue early in the legislative session because they said farmers’ voices would be diminished under the new committee structure. They also pointed to the fact that the two most powerful House leaders are from Minneapolis and St. Paul, as are many committee chairmen.

Poppe said rural Republicans did not complain when their party was in power several years ago and the committee structure was similar.

Poppe herself discussed the controversy while speaking at the ag group’s monthly policy meeting after no one brought up the issue. “It’s better to put it on the table.”

She admitted that the finance committee has a lot of work as lawmakers write a budget by May 20.

“I don’t know if in the future it will be seen as too much,” Poppe said.

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