ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota lawmakers embarked on a legislative session unlike any other Jan. 5, with many key agricultural issues to be considered in the state. Virtual floor sessions and committee hearings will prevent lawmakers and constituents from connecting face-to-face at least to start the year.
Stu Lourey, government relations director with Minnesota Farmers Union, said he thinks state legislators are "well-attuned" to the new normal of meeting virtually. However for citizens and lobbyists, it will be harder for them to have their voices heard.
"We're going to have to be leaning hard on other ways of communicating our needs, and have to be really engaged," Lourey said. "But legislators need feedback from community and folks too, and they're going to be looking for that."
For advocates who are at the Capitol regularly and farmers showing up for specific matters, some of the best connections are made in between the action and in the hallways, said Lourey.
"It's being on the bench in the committee hearing, and when it's over you can grab people to talk," he said. "Absent that, it's going to be a lot of trying to text, email and keep up to speed by other means."
Josie Lonetti, associate director of public policy for the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said the virtual setting for this session is a "significant deviation" from how she and constituents are used to engaging with elected officials.
"From a Farm Bureau perspective, we're really going to rely on the personal relationships that our lobbyists, members of our board and our individual farmer members have with their representatives," Lonetti said. "Such as communicating through text messages instead of just running into folks in the hallways."
She said MFB staff has had a number of successful Zoom calls with lawmakers leading up to the session.
"I'm glad we've all had 10 months now to practice our Zoom skills, so we all know where the mute button is," she said. "It's a weird time, but we want to make sure that we are ever-present in the 2021 sessions so that our members know that their voices are being heard at the Capitol."
Lourey said MFU was looking forward to again working with Minnesota State Sen. Torrey Westrom, chair of the Senate’s Agriculture Finance Committee, a post he's held since 2017. For personal reasons, Lourey was also excited to work with Representative Mike Sundin, the new chair of the House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee.
"Mike Sundin represented me growing up, at my parents' farm, so that's one thing I'm looking forward to," he said.
The top special orders passed by MFU members at its annual convention this year were affordable health care and expanding meat and poultry processing. No. 1 on that list is health care, a topic that's been a priority for MFU for a handful of years.
Lourey said health care continues to be such a major issue for MFU members because a lot of farmers in the state buy health insurance on the individual market.
"Like a lot of other small business owners, farmers have to purchase insurance there at exorbitant rates," he said. "They want to see more competition, and some kind of solution that brings down health care costs."
He expects the discussion and dynamics around health care reform to be similar to the last budget session, but the demand for more affordable options have ballooned with the COVID-19 pandemic.
To make meaningful progress on the issue, MFU has called for a buy-in option to MinnesotaCare, the state's health care program for Minnesotans with low incomes. The buy-in choice is similar to what Gov. Tim Walz proposed in 2019.
MFB is Minnesota's largest general farm organization, said Lonetti, and therefore it focuses on a "general host" of issues rather than issuing specific calls to action or prioritizing some issues over others. But she said one of the critical issues that flared up for the state's Farm Bureau members during the pandemic was health care affordability.
"It's getting that access and that affordability to health care, and whatever that looks like, as long as it can fill those holes," Lonetti said. "That's what we hear most from our members, is making that decision whether to take an off-the-farm job just to be able to have health insurance."
Now in a budget year, Lonetti said calling on legislators to continue funding investment into research programs, facilities and faculty through Agricultural Research, Education, Extension and Technology Transfer program and support for the Agricultural Growth, Research, and Innovation Program is important to MFB.
Need for more processors
Lourey said the second-most relevant issue by MFU members to address this session is a "severe shortage of small and mid-sized meat processors". A shortage in processors in the state has put pressure on smaller producers and businesses who need timely processing to stay afloat financially.
Over half of the respondents to a survey distributed by MFU and the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota this year said that they would raise more livestock if there was more processing available. Of the farmers surveyed, 64% said processing was inadequate in the state even before the pandemic.
The lack of processing operations can stifle beginning farmers, said Lourey, and derail a business before it can get off the ground.
"Folks are having to schedule a year in advance (with their processor), and if you are grazing or something like that, you don't even know if your animals are going to be ready," he said.
To resolve the processing deficiency, MFU is calling on lawmakers this session to provide funding for an adequate number of processing inspectors, and for the state to use its bonding authority to expand public and private investment in meat processing.