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Conferees settle differences with agriculture omnibus, drought relief bills

— UPDATED at 11:35 p.m. with House vote

With time to work dwindling, a conference committee working to reconcile agriculture bills came to an agreement on several appropriations and policy changes Saturday.

The conference committee report to HF3420 combines the omnibus agriculture and broadband supplemental finance and policy bill with one that would provide relief to farmers from the 2021 drought.

It was passed 69-64 by the House a few hours later. It now awaits Senate action.

“We’ve got a very strong, solid bill for the state of Minnesota on all the fronts for farmers, for agriculture, for rural broadband and the connectivity that’s become so important in our lives,” said Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake), who sponsors the bill with Rep. Mike Sundin (DFL-Esko). “We can be, I think, proud as a conference committee to be a big piece of this policy and financing that will be moving forward.”

“It’s been somewhat of a longer journey than probably necessary, but I think we hit on all the points,” Sundin said. “Had we had more money, it would have been a little better bill.”

The combined total in new appropriations for agriculture, drought relief and broadband would be $50.9 million from the General Fund in the current biennium and $32.5 million in the next biennium.

Funding was a sticking point in deliberations, with the House looking for $60 million in new funding this biennium and the Senate proposal adding just $5 million. With guidance from Gov. Tim Walz and caucus leadership, a $7.5 million in additional agricultural spending was agreed upon.

Under the agreement, the Department of Agriculture would receive an additional $1.5 million in fiscal year 2022 and $6 million in fiscal year 2023. And $7.5 million would be added to the department’s base in the next biennium.

[MORE: View the spreadsheet]

Some of the new policies and programs would:

  • establish a cooperative grants program;
  • establish farm down payment assistance grants;
  • add a member with knowledge of cybersecurity to the Food Safety and Defense Task Force;
  • establish a soil health financial assistance pilot program; and
  • require several reports to the Legislature, including from the Grain Advisory Group.

[MORE: View the agriculture statutory changes]


Drought relief would finally come

The drought relief and disaster recovery bill (HF3420) was originally passed by the House 101-33 on March 10. A month later, a conference committee was formed to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions.

The committee finally agreed to an $18.4 million package. The Agriculture Department would receive $13.1 million to support farmers hit by the 2021 drought, with $5 million going to the Department of Natural Resources to replace drought-killed seedlings and $300,000 for resolving well interference.

Grants from the Agriculture Department would be offered to farmers or producers in counties designated as a primary natural disaster area from July 19, 2021 to Jan. 1, 2022, or in a contiguous county. Assistance would be available up to $7,500 per farmer based on expenses incurred and attested to in response to the drought.

Among agriculture appropriations, the Senate proposed $7 million in livestock and specialty crop grants, while the House was at $5.1 million. The agreement would appropriate $8.1 million.

Additionally, $2.5 million would be transferred to the Rural Finance Authority, $1.5 million to the Agriculture Emergency Fund and $1 million to the University of Minnesota for veterinary diagnostic laboratory equipment.


Broadband boost

Improving broadband access throughout the state would get a big boost. An appropriation of $25 million from the General Fund in fiscal year 2023 would be transferred to the Border-to-Border Broadband Fund.

The Department of Employment and Economic Development must also prepare a grant application to the U.S. Treasury Department, requesting that $60.7 million of Minnesota’s capital projects fund be allocated for broadband projects.

The total would fund a lower population density pilot program to provide broadband to unserved and underserved areas, as well as a broadband line extension program.

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