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DFL, GOP squabble over committee handling of agriculture issues

The Rules Committee voted down efforts to separatedoversight of farm issues from a committee that also handles environment and natural resources funding.

GOP Rep. Rod Hamilton: "We want to have a strong rural presence, a strong rural voice."
MinnPost photo by James Nord

House Democrats rejected a Republican-backed measure Monday aimed at preserving agriculture’s “autonomy” in state budgeting and policymaking.

GOP legislators wanted to separate oversight of farm issues from a committee that also has jurisdiction over environment and natural resources funding.

 Republicans have raised concerns about combining the sometimes-conflicting interests under one finance committee.

The fight at Monday’s Rules Committee hearing proved to be the first major political scuffle for House lawmakers this session.

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Republicans argued that agriculture issues should be spun off from the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee because it makes up such an important part of Minnesota’s economy.

They painted metro Democrats, including Rep. Jean Wagenius, the Minneapolis DFLer who chairs the committee, as an environmentalists out of touch with the issues important to rural Minnesotans.

“We want to have a strong rural presence, a strong rural voice,” GOP Rep. Rod Hamilton, said in a passionate speech. “Again, it’s standing up for rural Minnesota.” Hamilton last session chaired a combined agriculture policy and finance committee.

 Democrats criticized Republicans for politicizing concerns over agriculture. House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, who represents St. Paul, said the request to change the committee structure became a “distraction” after debate stretched on.

 They also said it makes sense to keep agriculture and the environment combined under one committee because the issues often overlap, and argued that metro Democrats recognize the importance of farming in Minnesota.

 “Metro members can be strong advocates for Minnesotans’ farming economy,” said Rep. Melissa Hortman, chairwoman of the House Energy Policy Committee. “A lot of us care deeply about this industry.”

 The Rules Committee voted down the measure 15-12 along party lines, despite Hamilton’s insistence that agriculture transcends party divisions. If Republicans had their way, control over the sector would have fallen to Rep. Jeanne Poppe, a rural DFLer.

 Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers called the current structure “a slap in the face to agriculture.”

 “I’m the eternal optimist, so I was hoping for some support from the Democratic Farmer Labor Party,” Hamilton joked after the hearing.

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 Despite pleas to consider the livelihoods of rural Minnesotans, even outstate Democrats pushed back against Republican arguments.

 “You think we’re demonizing something,” DFL Rep. John Persell said. “Now you’re talking me down, and I don’t like that.”

 Both Republicans and Democrats criticized each other for divisive politics so early in the session, but neither side backed down.

 “It’s unfortunate to start out the year talking about our differences,” DFL Rep. Rick Hansen said. “We have a lot we can do, a lot we can accomplish and a lot we can do together.”