This article is featured in the January-February 2021 issue of Soybean Business.
With an ongoing pandemic casting a pall over the state, Minnesota political experts aren’t sure what the 2021 Legislative Session outlook holds. What’s certain, however, is the usual rhythms of St. Paul politics will govern to a different beat in 2021.
“It will not be business as usual in St. Paul this year,” Minnesota Soybean Growers Association lobbyist Cory Bennett said.
The session begins Jan. 5 and likely will be all-virtual. It figures to be quiet at the state capitol, which typically bustles with legislators, advocates, school groups, media and lobbyists. Yet MSGA has been advocating virtually since its 2020 Hill Visit and is prepared to continue electronic communications this session.
“This is where our experience and credibility will shine,” MSGA Vice President Mike Skaug said.
MSGA’s digital Phone2Action advocacy outreach, which connects advocates directly with legislators, will be a critical device, along with other forms of digital communication.
“Having a tool like Phone2Action will be huge for us this year,” MSGA Executive Director Joe Smentek said. “It played a large role in being able to communicate with legislators in 2020, and helped us finally get full Section 179 conformity passed.”
Due to anticipated COVID-19 gathering and travel restrictions, MSGA will also lean on its statewide membership base to leverage its established relationships with area legislators.
“We’re going to rely on our members’ local connections like never before,” MSGA President Jamie Beyer said. “We’re used to having boots on the ground, interacting with legislators, and we’re not going to have that opportunity. And that makes things like building relationships with new legislators and their staff more difficult.”
With the state’s budget in flux, MSGA may be forced to advocate from a mostly defensive posture. But Minnesota’s continued status as the nation’s only divided legislature means opportunities abound for compromise.
MSGA 2021 legislative priorities
- Protecting agricultural interest in the biennium budget
Minnesota’s finances look less bleak than they appeared last May, when the state’s budget forecasters predicted a $2.42 billion deficit. In December, the forecast was revised to a projected $641 million surplus for the 2020-2021 biennium. MSGA will advocate with legislators to ensure agriculture, which accounts for approximately 25 percent of the state’s GDP, is a budgetary priority.
“The budget is the elephant in the room as we enter the 2021 session,” Bennett said. “Legislators are going to be focused on the budget, and everything else will probably be secondary.”
- Advocating against tax increases
MSGA secured one of its biggest wins in years when the Legislature passed full Section 179 conformity in October, 2020. In 2019, MSGA also secured property tax relief for farmers in the school building bond ag credit, clarified the ag homestead tax and also supported the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit. No new taxes went into effect for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. But any further tax decreases during this biennium are unlikely, given the shaky condition of the state’s economy.
“We need to hold onto those tax wins from previous years,” Skaug said.
- Protecting biodiesel
Minnesota enters the fourth season of its B20 mandate. Renewable fuels have faced opposition – and support – from both sides of the aisle. With climate change and electric cars discussions ramping up, MSGA won’t play it safe in 2021.
“Biodiesel is on our agenda every year,” MSGA lobbyist A.J. Duerr said. “We’ve always been in favor of increasing biofuel consumption, whether it’s biodiesel or a proposed increase to E15.”
MSGA participated in the Governor’s Council on Biofuels and urged the Walz administration to order the state fleet to use higher blends of biodiesel. The council also discussed moving to a B30 blend in the future. MSGA will also push back against aspects of the “Clean Cars Rule” and the Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
“We’re going to protect our biodiesel mandate that’s proven to work for farmers and Minnesota,” Smentek said. “We want to keep the policies that work for Minnesota rather than adopt practices from California.”
- Value-added ag
MSGA is a staunch proponent of promoting value-added agriculture products. The Ag Innovation Campus, Plasma Blue technology and RePlay’s biobased road sealant each aim to increase the profitability for Minnesota’s nearly 28,000 soybean farmers. MSGA will work with legislators and the Walz administration to promote the economic and environmental benefits of these value-added endeavors.
“We’re always looking to add value to soybeans,” Beyer said, “and take advantage of the fact we have a homegrown commodity that benefits the entire state.”
- Regulatory overreach and more
MSGA has successfully prevented efforts to further regulate use of agriculture chemicals. Although Bennett expects bills to be introduced limiting use of ag chemicals, the GOP’s Senate majority is unlikely to pass such measures.
MSGA, a member of the Minnesota Broadband Coalition, will continue pushing for infrastructure investments along with a slew of other policy goals: lifting truck weight limits, funding to combat invasive species, protecting land property rights, grain bin safety and increased rural mental health resources.
The communication methods might change, but MSGA aims to be stronger than ever when the session concludes on May 17.
“The work goes on, and we’ll have a successful 2021 session,” Beyer said.