2024 legislative session: MSGA combines defense, offense to earn policy wins

When the clock struck midnight on May 20 in St. Paul, signaling a chaotic conclusion to the contentious 2024 legislative session, the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association was mostly successfully in defending against harmful, anti-farming legislation, while also securing important policy and investment initiatives.

As is the case in many legislative sessions, the policies MSGA stopped mattered as much – if not more – than legislation that reached the governor’s desk.

Sure, defense isn’t always flashy, but in the world of advocacy, it gets the job done.

“I think the biggest assessment from our standpoint is what didn’t get passed in this session,” MSGA Executive Director Joe Smentek said. “A lot of provisions we had seen introduced or heard were going to be introduced didn’t make it in any bills.”

MSGA’s lobbying team and farmer leaders pushed back against bills that would’ve limited producers’ ability to operate, including bans on neonicotinoids and pesticides; a bill banning soybean seed from being treated with neonicotinoids; and new fertilizer fees.

“There were a lot of bills that would’ve been damaging to agriculture,” MSGA President Bob Worth said. “We worked hard with lawmakers and committee chairs to get those policies removed, so from that viewpoint, it was a very successful session.”

Legislation that would’ve affected biodiesel, which contributes nearly $1.7 billion toward the state’s economy, also failed to gain traction, signaling another win for MSGA.

“We are definitely pleased to see that nothing passed this legislative session that would impact our biodiesel industry,” MSGA lobbyist Cory Bennett said. “Biodiesel is something that we’ve protected and defended in St. Paul for over 20 years, and we continue to work with both parties and the governor’s administration to highlight the environmental and economic impacts of biodiesel.”

MSGA Director Jim Kukowski (left) and Vice President Darin Johnson (middle) visit with Rep. Paul Anderson, a Starbuck farmer who sits on the House Ag Committee, during MSGA’s Hill Visit on Feb. 21, 2024.

Language on drain tiling registration at the time of sale, which MSGA strongly opposed, also failed to become law, thanks to push back from farm advocacy groups.

“Our members were very concerned about this language,” Smentek said, “and we thank Sen. (Aric) Putnam and his colleagues for taking a hard stance and protecting agriculture.”

Environmental Bill

In the Environmental Committee, lawmakers passed a supplemental bill in the second year of the biennium, which:

• Modifies the definition of public waters of the state that their inclusion or exclusion on the public waters inventory prepared by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is not how public waters are exclusively defined. This policy won’t take effect until 2027, affording MSGA a window to modify the bill in future session to allow for more regulatory certainty.

• Appropriates $8 million to DNR over eight years to update the public water inventory.

• Prohibits nitrogen fertilizer use on state lands in the karst region in the fall and retires land that doesn’t feed animals from cooperative agreements.

In addition, the environmental bill also included a provision that increases the fine for buffer noncompliance to $10,000.

“Fortunately, our farmers are about 99-percent compliant with the buffer law,” Smentek said.

Ag Bill

Highlights from the Omnibus Agriculture Supplemental Appropriations Bill (which, along with the environmental bill, passed in the session’s final day) included nearly a half-million in funding for soil health grants; $225,000 to combat avian Influenza; and $2.8 million for nitrate initiatives in southeast Minnesota (in addition to appropriating $13 million from the Clean Water Fund).

Support for deer depredation was one of MSGA’s top 2024 legislative priorities. During Hill Visits in February and March, MSGA stressed to dozens of lawmakers and Gov. Walz how growers, mostly located in southeast Minnesota, have been crippled by deer feeding on their soybean crop. While MSGA sought greater state support, the $50,000 in funding for a deer crop and fence damage study is a start toward addressing the issue.

“We know it’s a problem from hearing from our members and hope the DNR takes it seriously,” Worth said.

The future of the Agricultural Fertilizer Research and Education Council (AFREC), which was due to sunset in 2025, remained a sticking point in the Ag Committee throughout the session. Ultimately, lawmakers passed a five-year extension of the program, which invests a 40-cent per ton fertilizer fee toward soil fertility. The extension also included an expansion of the Council members, which includes representation from MSGA.

Turning the page

Bennett, who has worked at the Capitol for more than 30 years, said each session has its own distinct tenor and tone. The 2024 session, marked by partisan tensions, certainly proved unique. While lawmakers may have been shouting in the Capitol during the session’s final hours, MSGA kept its head down and found compromise where it could.

“Certainly, I don’t think that was the finish that anybody wanted to see. It was unfortunate,” Bennett said. “But this is the time now for legislators to go home and cool off, visit with their constituents and come back with a different perspective.”

MSGA’s team is eager to connect legislative candidates with farmer leaders during the upcoming campaign season and engage with legislative leaders during Farmfest in August in hopes of a more favorable legislative environment in 2024.

“We don’t want to get into a situation where politics are put in front of doing this right for Minnesota farmers,” Smentek said. “As a nonpartisan organization, we want to work with both sides to get work done for farmers.”

Worth, who steps down as MSGA President in June, commended Gov. Walz, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and House and Senate leaders on both sides for defending agriculture.

“Our friends on the House and Senate – Sen. Putnam, Sen. (Nick) Frentz, Sen. (Bill) Weber, Chairwoman (Samantha) Vang and Rep. Paul Anderson – we just had a lot of folks in St. Paul helping agriculture, especially MDA,” Worth said. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but our lobbying team spent a lot of time finding policy wins where we could.”

A special session later this summer is possible but not likely. The 2024 election takes place Nov. 5, and the 2025 legislative session commences Jan. 14.

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