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National Democrats are going after GOP candidate Michelle Fischbach for something Minnesota Democrats have long championed

A new ad from the primary super PAC of House Democrats slams Republican congressional candidate Michelle Fischbach for voting in favor of a bill that included the state’s buffer rule, an environmental policy that DFLers have long supported.

A stream buffer in the Lac qui Parle River Watershed.
A stream buffer in the Lac qui Parle River Watershed.

In their push to re-elect U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson to Congress, the primary super PAC of House Democrats is criticizing Republican challenger Michelle Fischbach for voting to approve an environmental policy that local DFLers have long supported.

Michelle Fischbach
Fischbach for Congress
Michelle Fischbach
In a new television ad, the House Majority Political Action Committee, which is aligned with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, says Fischbach helped facilitate a “government power grab forcing farmers to give up productive land.” It’s a reference to the so-called buffer rule, a law passed in 2015 under Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton that requires farmers to plant grass or other protective vegetation around waterways with a primary aim of reducing agricultural pollution.

The ad illustrates how unusual the political battle in the 7th Congressional District is, where national Democrats are trying to highlight Peterson’s record as a conservative Democrat and support for agriculture while accusing Fischbach — who served as a Republican state senator and lieutenant governor  — of the sin of going along with Dayton.

While Peterson has been in office for 15 terms, his district has trended Republican for several cycles. And the buffer issue is not the only way Peterson has sought to highlight his independent streak. Peterson has touted the fact that he was the only Democrat to vote against impeaching Donald Trump, and he also opposes Gov. Tim Walz’s efforts to implement California auto emission regulations in Minnesota, said Sue Dieter, a campaign staffer for Peterson.

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Still, the attack on Fischbach has been a head-scratcher for some in the GOP. “It’s really bizarre when you think about it that Democrats would be criticizing somebody for voting for something they really championed,” said state Rep. Paul Torkelson, a Republican from Hanska who led negotiations for the House GOP when the buffer bill passed the Minnesota Legislature.

A Dayton priority passed by a bipartisan majority

Dayton first proposed the buffer rule in 2015, and Democrats pitched it as a way to improve water quality and habitat. Strengthening existing regulations, it generally required a 50-foot buffer of perennial vegetation around lakes, rivers and streams, as well as 16.5-foot buffers along ditches. The buffers help filter farm runoff, keeping phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment from polluting waterways. 

Agriculture trade groups and farmers have had various frustrations with the law and its implementation, with some arguing it was inflexible or that it takes land out of production without any compensation. 

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
Gov. Mark Dayton
Torkelson said passing the buffer law was a priority for Dayton in 2015, a year in which DFLers had control of the state Senate and Republicans held a majority in the state House. Not all Republicans were hostile to the concept, though Torkelson said GOP lawmakers “voted for it reluctantly in many cases.”

Ultimately, the Legislature passed an omnibus agriculture and environmental bill that included a negotiated, compromise version of the buffer law — and also other measures Republicans favored, such as a provision to eliminate the powerful citizen review board at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

At the time, Dayton said it was a “significant accomplishment,” according to the Star Tribune. “I think we’ll see in the next couple of years a very significant expansion in the number and quality of buffers to make our water cleaner and increase wildlife habitat,” he said. Yet some Democrats and environmental groups criticized the compromise bill for not doing enough to protect waterways. 

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Since 2015, the law has been tweaked to be more flexible, and elected officials in both parties have considered offering compensation to farmers for the buffer land. Walz has supported a tax credit, while Republican Jeff Johnson promised to scrap the buffer law altogether in his 2018 campaign for governor and replace it with something that directly paid farmers. 

Still, the Board of Water and Soil Resources says that roughly 98 percent of land next to Minnesota waters are compliant with the buffer law, as of July 2019. “While there’s been a lot of complaining and a lot of dissatisfaction, the truth is most land owners, the vast majority of landowners have put these buffers in place or have planned to put them in place without litigation,” Torkelson said.

Peterson runs to the right on buffers

Peterson’s run to the right of Fischbach on the buffer issue may play to the frustration of some farmers in the ag-heavy 7th CD, but the House Majority PAC is criticizing a policy that started with the DFL and that Republicans worked to make less tough on farmers. “Dayton really wanted this,” said Torkelson. “He saw it as something very important to him and his administration.” 

As a state Senator, Fischbach voted for the omnibus agriculture and environment bill in 2015, but also supported efforts to narrow the buffer program in following years. 

State Rep. Paul Torkelson
State Rep. Paul Torkelson
David FitzSimmons, Fischbach’s campaign manager, portrayed Fischbach’s vote less as support for a buffer law and more for a negotiated package of legislation that included things like a loan program for farmers to modernize equipment. “I think what her position is is we shouldn’t be taking land from farmers without compensation,” FitzSimmons said. “I think it’s just incredibly disingenuous to try and spin it as something pushed by Republicans and Michelle Fischbach.”

The House Majority PAC did not respond to a request for comment. Dieter, the campaign staffer for Peterson, told MinnPost that Peterson believes the buffer law should be voluntary and has worked to make conservation policy in the federal Farm Bill voluntary rather than a requirement. 

Peterson chairs the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees the Farm Bill, a vast piece of agriculture and infrastructure legislation passed every five years.

From Congress, Peterson had no official say in the debate over the buffer law, but he has vocally opposed it for several years despite local DFL support. Dieter said Fischbach has campaigned on a message of reducing regulations on farming “and yet she’s the one that supported the buffer strips when it came up for a vote in the Senate.”

“Congressman Peterson is a farmer himself and he understands that farmers are the best conservationists,” she said.