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House, Senate negotiators begin reconciliation of drought relief assistance bills

Trying to decide the total appropriation, how it’s split and how much each farmer could receive are part of the responsibility of a conference committee weighing the House and Senate options on the drought recovery and assistance bill.

At its first meeting Tuesday, conferees heard from House and Senate analysts along with the Agriculture and Natural Resources commissioners to determine how to reconcile HF3420 and SF3479.

The House bill includes a $5.1 million total appropriation with a maximum of $10,000 available to each farmer. The Senate bill includes a $7 million appropriation with farmers able to receive up to $5,000 each.

One of the biggest differences between the two bills is the House bill would allocate $13.3 million to the Department of Natural Resources for various programs. The Senate bill does not include any money to the DNR.

“The Senate does not have this language at all, so it does slow down the relief for the farmers and it will continue to slow it down just because there’s a big difference between the Senate and House bill on that aspect,” said Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake). “So, if that was worked out on another bill or piece of legislation, the $10 million and how it’s divided up between the House and Senate components of the part dealing with just the farmer emergency aid is much closer. So, that’s why it can take longer to make this happen.”

DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen pushed for the appropriations to remain in the bill.

“While the impacts are seen to farmers immediately, right?” Strommen said. “So, we can see those. The impacts to our forests and our waters may happen over time, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t an urgency today to act to reverse that problem.”

The House bill would appropriate $5.6 million to replace drought-killed seedlings on DNR lands, $4.5 million to remove and plant shade trees and provide watering equipment, $3 million to increase public water efficiency and $300,000 for costs associated with resolving well interferences.

“The question before us is not an either/or that we do just one and not the other,” said Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul). “It’s a question of both. Both of these provisions are needed, whether it’s forestry or whether it’s agriculture. We can do both. We’ve got the budget. We can do both.”

[MORE: View a spreadsheet of the differing appropriations]

The agriculture-related appropriations are broken down by farm type.

In the House bill, $1 million would go to livestock farmers, $1 million to specialty crop farmers, $500,000 for farmers’ market vendors and $100,000 for livestock hay and forage. The Agriculture Department would be allowed to reallocate based on demand.

The Senate bill calls for $5.5 million to livestock farmers, $1.5 million to livestock or specialty crop farmers, with up to $100,000 of the $1.5 million for livestock feed transport.

The House bill would allow for grants to any livestock or specialty crop farmer impacted by the 2021 drought; the Senate limits access to farmers in areas designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a primary natural disaster area from July 20, 2021 to Dec. 31, 2021.

The payment determination in the House bill covers drought-related expenses from April 2, 2021 to May 1, 2022, while the Senate bill covers attested value of loss due to the drought.

The order of preference in the Senate bill would be on a first-come, first-served basis. The House would bill would determine priority based on a county’s drought relief designation, serving the highest designation first with payments randomized if demand exceeds funding.

Livestock feed transport payments are included in both bills. The Senate bill includes a reimbursement of $6.60 per mile to transport feed up to 25 miles to and from the farm, if not reimbursed by USDA livestock assistance. The House bill covers $6 per mile for up to 25 miles from a farm.

A transfer of $5 million to the Rural Finance Authority for disaster recovery loans is included in the House bill, while the Senate includes $1.5 million to the RFA, which must provide reporting.

[MORE: View the differences]

The House bill includes the following not in the Senate bill:

  • funding to cover 6.5% of administrative costs of the Agriculture Department;
  • outreach to emerging farmers; and
  • changes eligibility for RFA disaster recovery loans.

The Senate bill includes:

  • related reporting;
  • funding for veteran diagnostic lab equipment; and
  • funding toward the agriculture emergency account.

The conference committee is scheduled to meet again Wednesday.

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