Many Minnesotans like to think of their state as unique. That's certainly true in at least one way, with Minnesota the only state in the nation where the legislature is divided in 2021. That promises an eventful year for Minnesota agriculturalists hoping to influence legislative action, two Minnesota commodity group officials say.
"When we have a divided Legislature like this, it makes the job (representing ag interests) hard," said Joe Smentek, executive director of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. Part of that is because "we have a lot of new faces" (first-time legislators) and "the loss of some longtime ag allies" who no longer serve in the Legislature, leading to an "information gap."
Smentek and Amanda Bilek, senior public policy director with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, spoke Jan. 12 during the 2021 Virtual Small Grains Update Meeting. The event, sponsored by the University of Minnesota Extension, Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council, Minnesota Soybean and Minnesota Corn Growers Association, was open to the news media.
The Minnesota Senate is under Republican control, albeit by a slim 34-33 majority, while the Democratic-Farmers-Labor Party controls the House with a 70-64 majority, down from a 75-59 margin. It's the only state nationally with a divided legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. House members are elected every two years, Senate members to four-year terms.
Encouragingly for ag, organizations and individuals with legislative goals contrary to those of Minnesota ag have most of the same challenges in dealing with divided government, Smentek said.
He also said, "A lot of these issues we deal with aren't a one-party issue . So hopefully we can still get some things done."
Typically, in years in which an incumbent U.S. president is up for reelection, the opposition party gains seats in both the U.S. Congress and state legislatures. That didn't happen this year in Minnesota.
"Republicans did well in this election," Smentek said, adding an important factor was "red (areas with Republican voters in the majority) getting redder and blue (areas with Democratic voters in the majority) getting bluer," he said.
Issues contributing to that include civil unrest and COVID-19, he said.
Among Smentek's key takeaways:
The number of Minnesota farmer-legislators continues to dwindle. In the 1961-62 legislative session, 63 farmers served as state legislators. In the upcoming session, there will be only eight, all House Republicans serving in the minority, which limits their ability to serve in top legislative positions and influence legislation.
Passing a two-year state budget will be the priority, with uncertainty about COVID-19 and economic recovery complicating the entire legislative process, said Bilek, with Minnesota Corn.
On the ag front, she said, "We want to make sure funding for agricultural research and investment is as robust as possible," she said, noting that "agriculture is the second-largest economic driver in Minnesota."
Making sure that potential responses to climate change are voluntary, not mandatory, for farmers is another priority, Bilek said.