Bob Barrett had just begun his first campaign for the Minnesota House last year when he was asked what he thought was an intriguing question.
“So what’s your position on ‘Green Acres’?” Barrett was asked.
“Ummm, you mean the television show?” he responded.
Who could forget such a classic television show? From 1965 to 1971 – and ever since in re-runs – Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor have starred as city slickers who try to adapt to life on the farm. The show also featured Arnold Ziffel, the neighborly pig.
For all the wonders of the TV program, it turns out that’s not what Barrett’s questioner was asking about.
Especially in ex-urban Minnesota, “Green Acres” refers to a law that has been around, in various forms, since 1967. It’s meant to preserve farming, especially in recreational areas in the state and in fast-growing areas around cities where subdivisions were swallowing up cornfields.
What “Green Acres” has become is a story of how good intentions can become excruciatingly complex.
New efforts to change the law
And again this year, the Legislature, now controlled by conservative Republicans, is trying to tackle the issue, following the 2008 changes in the law.
Start with the good intentions: The law was designed to keep those salt-of-the-Minnesota-earth farmers from being taxed off their land.
Say you have a farm near the metro area. As farmland, your property is worth $2,000 an acre. But subdivided and turned into lots for 2-acre plots for housing, it’s worth $50,000 an acre. At what rate should it be taxed?
The 1967 law essentially said that as long as you were farming the land, your property tax would be based on the agricultural value of the land.
So simple. So noble.
But, of course, in the real world, nothing is really simple.
What’s farming? Does that family with 20 acres, a pony and a chicken coop qualify? What of the 200-acre farm which has a 20-acre forest in the middle of it? For the purpose of property tax value, is that wooded area really farmland?
The House Agriculture Committee had a robust hearing on all of this Tuesday, because a group of freshman Republicans, with help from some more veteran hands, wants to repeal the 2008 changes in the name of “fairness and simplicity.”
When you listen to the Republicans — led by freshman Rep. Mike LeMieur of Little Falls, who is leading the effort to gut the 2008 changes — you nod your head in agreement.
“They’ve done more harm than good,” said LeMieur.
Key to those changes, which were an effort to bring balance across the state to how farmland was assessed, was a provision creating two levels of ag land, “productive” and “non productive.”
The productive areas, where corn and soybeans are being grown for example, were charged at a property rate of roughly a 0.5 percent of the value of an acre. The non-productive areas, where that stand of trees is located, is taxed at 1 percent.
LeMieur and people like Barrett — who studied hard and learned Green Acres isn’t about Eva Gabor saying, “Darling, give me Park Avenue” — want that portion of the law eliminated.
“If you talk to a farmer, they’ll tell you there is no such thing as non-productive land,” said LeMieur. “Just because an area isn’t being tilled doesn’t mean it’s not in use.”
Rep.Mary Kiffmeyer, a two-term Republican from Big Lake, supports LeMieur’s position.
“A farm is a farm is a farm,” she says.
She adds that there are farmers who actually are ripping out lovely stands of trees so they can plant oats where oaks once grew.
What’s a fair way to tax farmland?
The only way to get at this “fairly,” in the minds of LeMieur, Kiffmeyer and Barrett, is to gut the 2008 changes and let each county assessor make the decision on how land should be taxed.
Seems reasonable — until you talk with someone such as Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul. All of a sudden he sounds like the reasonable one.
In Hansen’s view, this isn’t really an ag issue. He says it’s a property tax issue and that Republicans are just attempting to lower taxes on some farmers, but doing it in a way that will force tax increases on others in the same county.
This issue is hot, he said, in metro “collar areas” and in a handful of rural counties where there is a combination of recreational and ag lands, such as in far southeastern Minnesota and in places like Chisago County.
“Repeal is not reform,” Hansen said. “The 2008 reforms brought responsibility to the system.”
But aren’t beautiful woodlands being razed so that farmers don’t have to pay the higher tax rate for so-called non-productive lands?
“I would suggest it’s rising prices for corn and soybeans that’s leading to those decisions,” said Hansen.
He also said that changes in the law should require farmers who apply for Green Acres enrollment and the tax protection that comes with it to sign a seven-year covenant. That means the farmer commits to continue to farm the land for seven years. If the land is sold for development before then, there should be a hefty financial penalty, he believes .
The Republicans seek to limit the time commitments of such covenants.
But what of those woodlands in the middle of a farm?
They should be taxed at a higher rate, Hansen argues. Among other things, those woodland areas in ag lands near metro areas and in recreational areas have the most appeal to potential property buyers.
The 2008 changes may not have been perfect, but supporters say they limited some of the past abuses found by the legislative auditor.
“I think our experience shows that tax laws are not the best way to keep farm land from being developed,” Hansen said. “The best ways are zoning laws and easements against development.”
Back and forth they go, a reminder that neither issues nor motives at the Capitol are always as simple as they may seem.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.