$13M plan for shade tree, seedling replanting stirs division in drought relief talks
Minnesota lawmakers met for the first time on Tuesday to start bridging gaps between plans approved by the House and Senate that could send out grants and loans to farmers and ranchers.
ST. PAUL — A panel of Minnesota lawmakers on Tuesday, April 19, met for the first time to iron out the differences between two drought relief bills.
And they hit an early roadblock on plans to include funding to replant shade trees and seedlings.
A conference committee compared two bills passed by the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate and started deciding what pieces could appease members of each chamber. While members of both legislative bodies supported proposed grants and loans for hardest-hit farmers, a $13 million plan to fund the replanting of seedlings and shade trees, seemed to face a tougher road forward.
House Democrats advanced the proposal to replant trees and provide grants for water infrastructure as part of the drought package. And they, along with Walz administration officials, said the funding was key to preventing the harmful impacts of future droughts.
“The impact to our forests and our waters may happen over time but that doesn’t mean there’s not an urgency today to act to reverse that problem,” Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen said. “Any further delay means we’re not addressing that problem and we’re going to see the problem grow down the road.”
Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers on the committee said the two drought-related plans should pass together and that the state was in a financial position to address both. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans said the aid to farmers was more urgent and should be taken up alone.
“The Senate does not have this language at all so it will slow down the relief for the farmers,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said.
Farmers and ranchers for months urged lawmakers to green light support payments to help offset the impact of the drought. But partisan disagreements over other provisions that should be considered during a special legislative session — including a GOP call to oust health Commissioner Jan Malcolm — prevented the proposal from moving forward before January.
Different priorities in each chamber slowed its progress over the last two and a half months at the Capitol.
The Senate also approved a provision to put up emergency response funding for the highly transmissible avian influenza that wasn't included in the House plan.
Despite the disagreements, the committee leads said they would meet again Wednesday, April 20, to take up areas of agreement. Both chambers will have to sign off on a possible compromise for it to move to the governor's desk for approval.
“We all appreciate the importance of this bill but also we need to acknowledge that neither body wants to put it in a take it or leave it situation on issues that we both have strong feelings about,” House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko, said. “Though we take different approaches, I’m hopeful we can work out our differences in short order.”