Agriculture budget passes Senate

The first budget bill will be on its way to the Governor for approval in the coming days. On Thursday, the Senate approved the Agriculture and Rural Economies Budget Bill. This budget has a lot in common with Governor Mark Dayton’s recommendations and, overall, is a reasonable approach.

Although agriculture only makes up a fraction of total state spending, it funds important programs and services that many people in our area of the state rely upon. In the bill passed this week, ethanol producers around the state will be paid the last of about $13 million in delinquent producer payments, which are scheduled to end in August 2012. Any excess producer payment funding after 2012 is dedicated to the Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation Program in this bill. That will help fund grants and loans to livestock producers, bio-energy awards and other rural economic infrastructure activities.

In addition, the bill includes $5.3 million for the Agriculture Utilization Research Institute (AURI) and $2.5 million for Next Gen Energy Grants, which support renewable, local biofuels. The Next Gen grant total is about $1 million less than what the Senate originally wanted, and that’s because the bill also removes the anhydrous ammonia inspection fee. To offset this fee removal, we had to find money somewhere else to continue to pay for the inspections. Although this final bill isn’t exactly perfect, it’s a good product of bipartisan cooperation that is needed to end this session on time.

On Monday, the Senate also passed a bill that may help some of our local nursing homes that have been affected by flooding. Under current law, when a flood or disaster strikes and nursing homes are evacuated or beds are left unused, nursing homes still are required to pay a per-bed fee on each bed. The bill passed this week allows the commissioner of health to approve an inactive status for nursing home beds during a flood or other natural disaster, relieving nursing facilities from paying bed fees on unused beds during crisis times. This is another common-sense measure that was passed with strong bipartisan support.

The Senate gained a new Senator this week as well, a Democrat from St. Paul that replaced one of my colleagues that was appointed to the Public Utilities Commission. That former colleague also left an opening on the Senate Energy Committee, and I was honored to be appointed as the new minority lead on that committee in her absence. I’ve served on the Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee every year I’ve been in the Senate and really enjoy this work. I’m excited to be able to play a more prominent role on the committee.

On a similar topic, I also was appointed to the Legislative Energy Commission this week. The commission was formed in 2008 to, “evaluate the energy policies of this state and the degree to which they promote an environmentally and economically sustainable energy future.” It replaced the former Legislative Electric Energy Task Force in an effort to broaden the scope of the commission to include a focus on some of the renewable energy, such as wind power, that are becoming a more important part of our state’s energy product. I think it’s important to have someone from our energy-rich area of the state serving on this commission, and I’m honored to have the opportunity.

The legislature will observe the Passover and Easter holidays next week, recessing at 3 p.m. Monday for the remainder of the week. When we return after Easter, we will have about four weeks to complete the state budget work before the mandated end of session. If you have any questions or concerns as our schedule ramps up, please don’t hesitate to contact me at: sen.dan.sparks@senate.mn; 651-296-9248; Room 19 State Office Building, St. Paul, MN 55155.

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Senator Dan Sparks
Dan Sparks represents District 27, which includes all or portions of Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Mower, and Steele counties in the southeastern part of the state.

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