Fees in ag budget worry McNamara, Republicans
ST. PAUL - Republican lawmakers said an environment and agriculture budget bill the House approved 69-61 Thursday is loaded with too-high fees and wasteful spending.
"This agriculture and environment finance proposal is loaded with staggering fee increases that will impact hardworking taxpayers in every income bracket," said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings.
Bill author Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said the money will help manage water issues throughout the state, stem the spread of invasive species and fund agriculture programs.
"These fees are not nearly as damaging as has been indicated, and in fact are needed and they're necessary to protect our air and water and the health and safety of the people," said Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township.
A major concern among many lawmakers was water usage fee increases. They would add up to between about 75 cents and $4 a year for a household and about $2 to $6 per acre for the average farmer, said Wagenius, the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee chairwoman. That would raise about $6.1 million a year.
"Farmers are facing substantial increases in this bill when it comes to water and fees," said Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake.
Democrats argued that the money is needed to protect water in the state and that funding and resources have lagged in the past.
"We've all assumed the water in our state is an infinite resource," Wagenius said, "but our water, particularly our water underground, has its limits, and we're seeing those limits right now."
Those who opposed the overall bill said it would negatively affect homeowners, businesses and especially farmers. They pointed to permitting, mining and other fee increases, saying they would add up and negatively affect Minnesotans.
"This bill really increases fees on a lot of people, a lot of businesses," said Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck.
Some said the budget plan could push companies out of Minnesota.
"The fees in this bill give small businesses just one more reason to relocate to North Dakota," said Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston.
Democrats said the bill should show they understand the importance of rural Minnesota.
"It confirms the priorities of the DFL majority to make strong investments in agriculture that will benefit our farmers and our entire state," said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.
The bill would allot $67 million for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, about $476 million for the Department of Natural Resources and about $171 million for the Pollution Control Agency, among other departments.
The proposal also would create a silica sand technical assistance team to help local governments dealing with the issue.
Republicans said some proposed spending is unnecessary. For example, $300,000 is set aside for bee habitats, many noted, including $50,000 earmarked for signs and public awareness. Some acknowledged the bee population is suffering but said there are better ways to spend the money.
After brief discussion, Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, withdrew an amendment putting a five-year moratorium on wolf trapping -- from when the animal came off the endangered species list last year -- and a four-year moratorium on taking wolves in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
A Senate committee approved a wolf hunting and trapping ban earlier in the session, but it has not moved forward since then. The state's first wolf hunting season ended in January.
State senators are slated to discuss their version of the budget bill Friday.