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Minnesota Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake

Bill funds broadband, housing, mental health initiatives

On a broad bipartisan vote, the Minnesota State Senate passed our comprehensive agriculture, rural development, and housing budget bill. As the chief author of the legislation, I am proud that legislators on both sides of the aisle worked together to support rural broadband expansion, invest in affordable manufactured housing and home ownership, prioritized value-added agriculture opportunities that directly impact farmers, and increased resources for farmer mental health services in Minnesota.

As a whole, the bill funds the day-to-day operations of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, and the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program. In total, this bill allocates more than $258 million in funding, an increase of nearly $4 million over the last two-year budget.

Importantly, this bill focuses on reprioritizing existing resources to not only directly impact the bottom line of Minnesota farm families, but also improve their well-being. Low commodity prices have severely affected the agriculture community, especially dairy and soybean farmers. As a result, this bill invests in farmer mental health services and looks to expand markets to positively impact farmers in the barns and fields, rather than growing bureaucracy in St. Paul.

Specifically, the bill makes a one-time investment in an innovative soybean processing and research facility near the University of Minnesota Crookston, invests in the "Dairy Modernization and Innovation" program to help small dairy farms finance the modernization of their farm infrastructure, such as robotic milking equipment, funds the "Dairy Producer Margin Coverage Premium Assistance" program to help dairy farmers with profitability, and increases "dairy development grants" to aid farmers in creating new business plans.

Further, the bill funds the Minnesota Border-to-Border Rural Broadband expansion program at $30 million, a significant increase in the Minnesota Legislature's appropriation over the last biennium. From health care to education, to agribusiness, broadband access is essential to our way of life in the 21st century. Communities that lack access to broadband cannot flourish. This significant investment addresses this issue head-on.

Additionally, this budget legislation prioritizes the most affordable forms of housing in Minnesota and places an emphasis on workforce housing and home ownership. Historically, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency has not invested in manufactured housing. However, by unit, it is the most affordable form of housing. While it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, this bill invests in expanding manufactured housing so that we can get the most affordable housing possible for the best value, with the goal of expanding our Greater Minnesota workforce.

After passing the Senate, this bill now heads to a conference committee with the Minnesota State House of Representatives where we will work out the differences in our respective budgets. While that process has not yet begun, I am confident that through prioritizing programs and reforms that positively impact farm families and their budgets, we will continue to support and grow agriculture in Minnesota.