MN Legislative Wrap-up: A Mixed Bag for the Environment, Sustainable Ag, Family Farms

One of the most anti-environmental pieces of legislation to come out of the Minnesota Capitol in several years became law on Saturday, June 13. The Agriculture and Environment Omnibus Budget Bill was supposed to provide funding for numerous initiatives of importance to rural Minnesotans. However, as the session wound down, several policy provisions were plugged into the bill that did everything from tie state agencies’ hands when it comes to protecting the environment to providing money for the labeling of pesticide-laced plants as “pollinator friendly.”

But perhaps the most egregious provision of the Agriculture and Environment Omnibus Budget Bill—both in terms of its content and the way it was made part of the legislation—was a proposal to eliminate the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Citizens’ Board. The board’s role in providing the final decision on whether controversial developments should undergo stringent environmental review became a point of contention as soon as the Minnesota legislative session began in January.

The Citizens’ Board was established in 1967 with the creation of the MPCA to ensure an open and transparent process for approving permits for large developments. Over the years, it’s become a key venue for citizens to have a say in controversial projects such as factory farms that had significant potential to harm communities.

The role the Citizens’ Board plays in allowing the public to have a say in the future of their communities came to the fore in August 2014, when it ordered an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for an 8,850-cow dairy proposed in western Minnesota’s Stevens County. Neighbors to the proposed dairy raised concerns about its potential use of large amounts of water, how it would handle manure disposal and the amount of toxic hydrogen sulfide its manure lagoons would produce.

Indeed, documentation produced by the MPCA and the Department of Natural Resources showed the dairy did not have guaranteed access to about half of the land it needed to dispose of manure, and there were major concerns that its use of groundwater would tax the local aquifer at an “unsustainable” rate. In addition, modeling showed hydrogen sulfide emissions would be produced at levels that would come close to exceeding state standards.

Despite all of these issues, pro-factory farm lawmakers, supported by groups like the Minnesota AgriGrowth Council and the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, vowed to weaken the Citizens’ Board’s ability to order environmental reviews.

A bill was introduced early in the session that would have made the Citizens’ Board basically an advisory body. Land Stewardship Project farmer-members testified in committee hearings against the bill, making the point that rural citizens need open, meaningful access to decisions that could have huge impacts on their communities.

“This was my only opportunity to have input. I love the name ‘Citizens’ Board,’ because that’s who represents me,” said LSP member Kathy DeBuhr during one hearing. DeBuhr lives within a mile of the proposed site of the Stevens County dairy. “I urge you not to remove the power of the Citizens’ Board—they represent me,” she added.

However, lawmakers not only ignored citizens like DeBuhr—as well as officials with the MPCA—they went one better: just 48 hours before the adjournment of the official session, a proposal was stuck into the Agriculture and Environment Omnibus Budget Bill that eliminated the Citizens’ Board outright. This proposal was not introduced as a bill or heard previously in any legislative committee. Instead, it was adopted in conference committee in a backroom deal late on a Saturday. Conference committee proceedings take place behind closed doors, and it was clear that such an extreme measure would have never passed in an open legislative process (the Senate version of the Agriculture and Environment Bill contained no provisions weakening the Citizens’ Board).

As a sign of how provisions like this made for a particularly controversial Agriculture and Environment Bill, the entire legislation almost died on the Senate floor during the official session—it needed 34 votes to pass, and got 35.

A Visit to the Governor’s Mansion

That’s what brought the Land Stewardship Project and other member-groups of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership to the Governor’s Mansion a few days after adjournment of the official session. We called for a veto of the bill so it could be fixed during the subsequent special session, which was convened June 12 and lasted until the morning of June 13.

One of the people who met with the Governor that day was Loretta Jaus, a dairy farmer from Sibley County. She had with her a handful of petitions that had been circulated in rural Minnesota.

“These are over 700 signatures of rural Minnesotans who want strong environmental protections,” Jaus, a member of the Land Stewardship Project’s board of directors, said as she handed the petitions over to Governor Mark Dayton. “That’s why it’s important that you veto this bill.”

Jaus and others made the point that such provisions as elimination of the 48-year-old Citizens’ Board go against what rural Minnesotans have long made clear: they value a clean environment and want to have a say in any developments that may threaten that.

“Minnesota taxpayers have always made it clear that clean water and the environment is a priority,” Jaus told the Star Tribune newspaper after meeting with the Governor. “Rural people want to make sure the public is included in decision-making. That’s why the citizens’ advisory board was created; it was a key opportunity for people like me to get our voices heard.”

Two days later, Dayton listened to these concerns and vetoed the Agriculture and Environment Budget Bill. In his veto letter, the Governor said he was “deeply disappointed” with a bill that “undermines decades of environmental protections.”

In the days running up to the special session, newspaper editorials called for a bill that kept the Citizens’ Board strong, among other things. During the special session itself, DFL Senators resisted passing legislation that was so blatantly anti-environmental, and at one point on the evening of June 12 successfully stripped many of the bad provisions out. But by the early hours of June 13, the Citizens’ Board had fallen victim to a deal between legislative leaders and Dayton that provided support for some of the Governor’s priorities, such as the establishment of natural buffers along lakes, creeks and rivers (see below). As a result, after almost five decades of providing local communities a way to take part in decisions that have major impacts on environmental and human health, the Citizens’ Board is being eliminated.

In addition, the Agriculture and Environment Bill allows commercial nurseries to label their plants as “pollinator friendly,” even if insecticides are used that are toxic to insects. It also weakens various water pollution policies. Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville) called the bill “environmental vandalism.”

Below is a rundown of how other LSP priorities fared at the Legislature during the 2015 session:

Forever Green

The bill allocating Minnesota’s Clean Water Legacy funding provided $1 million for the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Agriculture Initiative. This is the money from the sales tax dedicated to the environment that Minnesota voters approved through a constitutional amendment.

Forever Green is doing cutting-edge research on developing cover cropping and forage production systems that are profitable for farmers while protecting soil and water quality. LSP farmer-members worked hard to gain approval for Forever Green’s funding during this session, seeing it as a critical way to support ongoing sustainable agriculture research at the U of M.

Buffer Initiative

First proposed by Gov. Dayton, the original idea behind the “buffer initiative” was to require at least 50-feet of perennial vegetation along all lakes, creeks and rivers in Minnesota. Buffers are highly effective at filtering out agricultural chemicals and reducing the amount of eroded soil that makes its way into waterways. They also provide wildlife habitat. Agricultural production would be allowed on the buffers as long as permanent vegetation is maintained. Haying and grazing would be permitted, for example. LSP sees such an initiative as a way to protect water quality on working farmland.

During the legislative session, LSP staff as well as farmer-members spoke out in favor of the buffer initiative, calling it one tool for providing clean water while producing economic activity on agricultural land.

The original proposal was watered down considerably by the final Agriculture and Environment Omnibus Budget Bill. It requires 50-foot buffers on public waters by November 2017 and 16.5-foot buffers on public ditches by November 2018. It will be up to local Soil and Water Conservation Districts to determine which waterways on private land will require buffers. It’s a good start, but it remains to be seen how effectively it will be implemented on working farms.

MinnesotaCare

A House proposal would have eliminated MinnesotaCare, a public, low-cost alternative to private health insurance that has provided healthcare to thousands of working Minnesotans for over 20 years. LSP has a number of members who use MinnesotaCare, including farmers. Without this program, many farmers would have to go without the healthcare they need or pay prohibitively high costs for it through the private market. Working with allies such as TakeAction Minnesota, LSP was able to prevent MinnesotaCare from being eliminated, although its budget was cut significantly.

Factory Farm Nuisance Law

Minnesota law exempts the vast majority of livestock farms from being subject to a nuisance claim related to, for example, odor or air pollution. The largest factory farms over 1,000 animal units in size (2,400 sows, for example) are not exempt from being sued for nuisance violations. Proposed legislation would have made it possible for these mega-factory farms to be shielded from nuisance law, even preventing state agencies and local government from pursuing action to abate a CAFO that is a public nuisance. This would have undermined the rights of citizens and governments to hold factory farms accountable. Due to strong opposition led by LSP and others, this bill was defeated.

Ag Research Board

A bill was proposed to create the Agriculture Research, Education, Extension and Technology Transfer Board to oversee over $18 million annually in public money for agricultural research and outreach. Directing more public funds toward agricultural research is a good idea, but as originally drafted the legislation set up a governing board that did not represent sustainable agriculture organizations, minority farmers, fruit and vegetable growers or organizations focused on water quality.

However, the board would have included representatives from each of the commodity groups as well as the AgriGrowth Council, which represents the largest agribusiness interests in the state. Each organization on the board would name their own representative—it is very unusual for a board that oversees large amounts of public funding to be comprised of members not selected by the Governor. LSP and our allies felt strongly the board must represent all the interests and needs facing Minnesota agriculture.

We were successful in highlighting the importance of a board that has fair representation, and legislation was passed that does not give commodity and agribusiness firms final say over how tax money is spent on research. However, it remains to be seen how exactly the Agriculture Research, Education, Extension and Technology Transfer Board will operate. LSP will be watching this issue closely in coming months.

LSP organizer Bobby King can be reached at 612-722-6377 or via e-mail.