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At Issue: Sharing the pain

Published (4/24/2009)
By Lee Ann Schutz
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Rep. Al Juhnke, background, discusses the veterans portion of the omnibus agriculture and veterans finance bill with Rep. Doug Magnus, foreground, on the House floor April 22. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)Keeping with what’s become a House tradition, the omnibus agriculture and veterans affairs finance bill led the way April 22 for the string of spending bills to be considered on the floor.

Tradition also has it that it is viewed as the most bipartisan of any of the major spending bills leaving the floor. But that tradition was left at the Chamber door.

After incorporating several Republican amendments, HF1122, sponsored by Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar), was passed by the House 83-49 on a nearly party-line vote. It now moves to the Senate where Sen. Jim Vickerman (DFL-Tracy) is its sponsor. The Senate passed its version, SF1779, 49-13 on April 17. A conference committee is to work out an agreement.

It isn’t so much that Republicans disagree with the bill’s provisions, but the amount of money it would spend over the biennium — they see it as too little and an example of misplaced priorities.

The House target for biennial spending for the Agriculture, Military Affairs and Veterans Affairs departments, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and Animal Health Board is $248.3 million, about $18 million less than in the governor’s budget proposal.

Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake), vice chairman of the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Division, said that good people were put in the position of having to shuffle money from one funding pot to another. “Where are the priorities?” He called for restoring the governor’s spending recommendations.

House Republicans were successful in attaching several amendments to increase funding for veterans programs. The caveat, however, is that the proposals, as amended by Juhnke, would be funded by moving money from agriculture.

He said that if the provisions were important, he did not want “to cherry-pick the bill apart,” but let the agriculture commissioner decide what should be funded.

“Every one of those amendments cuts jobs,” Juhnke said in responding to a question from Rep. Laura Brod (R-New Prague) regarding the amount of money being shifted from the department. He said that the changes reflect a more than $11 million biennial shift away from the Agriculture Department. He said the commissioner would have to decide where the cuts would take place. “We are talking about bureaucracy. … I’m not offering the amendments. I’m supporting you at this point,” he said.

Before amendments, the bill would provide over the biennium:

• $117.3 million for the Veterans Affairs Department;

• $72.9 million for the Department of Agriculture;

• $42.1 million for the Department of Military Affairs;

• $10.3 million for the Board of Animal Health; and

• $5.7 million to the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.

Juhnke said the House spending target reflects an overall 6 percent cut to the agencies, which division members said is disproportional because these agencies comprise approximately 10 percent of the state’s General Fund spending.

The cuts would be mitigated by deferring state-obligated ethanol producer payments and taking money from a relatively unused G.I. Bill education fund. Juhnke said the bill (before the floor amendments) reflects a more than 3 percent increase each over the forecast base for the Veterans Affairs Department and for operation of the state’s five veterans homes.

“We made a concerted effort to hold services at a level, so we didn’t displace anyone, or harm services.”

He explained the G.I. Bill fund was established two years ago with a $12 million General Fund allocation for higher education reimbursement for returning veterans. The federal government expanded its higher education benefit, resulting in less than $1 million expended from the state fund.

“We took $9 million out and relocated it into other (parts of the veterans budget). If we didn’t use these dollars, they would have fallen to the bottom line, and could have been used elsewhere. … If we wouldn’t have had the money, the cuts would have been excruciating,” Juhnke said.

One of the larger expenditures in the bill is more than $24 million for ethanol producer payments. Since the program was instituted in 1987, the annual payments to the first companies to involve themselves in the industry have been controversial. This was heightened by an April 17 report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor that questioned whether ethanol payments should be discontinued.

Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul) was unsuccessful with his amendment that would have put an end to the payments and dedicated the money to the General Fund. “While the program was well-intended, taxpayer subsidies of the industry should end,” he said.

Juhnke responded, “We’ve had this debate every two years. … This program is almost over.” He and others said the state has a moral obligation to honor its commitment. “We should not be knee-jerking the auditor’s report just days after it comes out.”

Rep. Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers) said the subsidies have been going on for too many years. “It’s never too late to end bad policies.”

The bill also contains policy provisions, including:

• a health and wellness assessment would be conducted between six months and one year after the end of a National Guard member’s deployment;

• an annual report would be due the Legislature regarding the number of veterans applying, interviewed and hired for state agency positions;

• changes would be made to training and educational qualifications for military personnel seeking to enter a law enforcement occupation;

• horses and other equines would be classed as livestock; and

• a noxious weed and invasive plant species assistance fund would be established.

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