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Ag committee considers, then delays, procedural move to block nitrogen rule

The House Agriculture Policy Committee gathered Saturday to consider using, for the first time, a 17-year-old state statute that would allow it block a controversial groundwater protection rule proposed by the Department of Agriculture earlier this year.

However, after passionate objections that had as much to do with the procedure as the policy, the committee decided to adjourn and postpone action until a noon meeting Sunday in hopes a compromise agreement can be reached. 

Introduced March 6, the rule is meant to reduce nitrate levels in the state’s drinking water by introducing new regulations in specific areas of the state regarding fall fertilizer application. Leaders of the House agriculture committees quickly objected, issuing a joint statement that urged the governor to “abandon his efforts to enforce this unpopular proposition.”

Several bills were also introduced in the House and the omnibus supplemental budget bill – HF4133/SF3656* – also initially contained a provision that would have prohibited the department from adopting the rule without prior approval by the Legislature.

That language was removed from the bill in a conference committee meeting Friday night and a provision in the standalone omnibus agriculture finance bill, HF4133, which was passed by the House and Senate Friday, has also drawn objections from Gov. Mark Dayton and may cause that bill to be vetoed.

Rep. Paul Anderson (R-Starbuck), the committee’s chair and bill’s sponsor, said the provision would return control of the soil loss index from the Board of Water and Soil Resources to the counties and called it “a good compromise.” But Anderson said he’d asked for the governor’s assurance he would sign the bill with that provision. He didn’t get it, so the committee decided to consider the resolution.

It would invoke a state statute that allows standing committees in the House and Senate, “with jurisdiction over the subject matter of a proposed rule” to prohibit an agency from adopting the rule “until the legislature adjourns the annual legislative session that began after the vote of the committee.”

“What [the resolution] does is it takes away … the rulemaking authority until the end of the next session as it pertains to the nitrogen rule,” Anderson said.

WATCH Pt. 1 of Saturday's committee hearing 

In a letter sent today to Anderson and Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne), chair of the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Policy Committee, the governor said he was “appalled” at the hearing that would “deny rural Minnesotans their rights to clean and safe drinking water.”

Several DFL members of the committee offered similar objections, calling the hearing “disappointing,” “bullying” and cringe worthy.” They said using the statute would subvert the rulemaking process and all the public input that has been taken on the proposed rule.

“When the governor says he’s appalled, I’m appalled too,” said Rep. Clark Johnson (DFL-North Mankato), adding that the decision not to take public testimony at the hearing likely violates House Rules.

He said rural communities that have had, or will have, to install reverse osmosis systems to remove nitrates from their drinking water deserve to be heard and the issue would drive a wedge into the spirit of cooperation in rural Minnesota.

“This is a dramatic action today. This has never been done,” Johnson said. “This is a huge step backwards in the progress of rural Minnesota. I think it’s a drastic mistake.”

Anderson said the resolution is an attempt to slow down the rulemaking process and that he is “befuddled” the governor has not agreed to the compromise language.

“To me, that’s the crux of why I’m here,” Anderson said.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-Austin) said she has not given up hope that a compromise could be reached and urged the committee to continue talking with the governor.

“My hope is the governor reads the [standalone] bill and decides it’s worth signing. I think it’s worth signing,” Poppe said. “I would respectfully ask that we all just take a chill pill and respect one another ... Let’s hope tomorrow that we don’t meet again.”


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