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$23 million drought relief bill moves forward at the Minnesota Capitol

A proposal to send aid to farmers and ranchers and to provide money to plant trees and seedlings after historically dry conditions in 2021 picked up bipartisan support.

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The U.S Drought Monitor map for Minnesota at mid-August, 2020. Virtually all of northern Minnesota was hit by severe (orange), extreme (red) or exceptional (brown) drought conditions. Only a small portion of southeastern Minnesota was not in drought conditions.
Image from U.S. Drought Monitor, NOAA
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ST. PAUL — A Minnesota environmental committee on Tuesday, Feb. 22, moved forward a proposal to provide more than $23 million in grants to farmers and communities hit hardest by the 2021 drought.

On a 12-6 vote, the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee advanced the Walz administration proposal to allocate $5 million to the Department of Agriculture to issue $10,000 grants to livestock producers and specialty crop farmers. Ag officials said priority would be placed on helping those in areas of the state that experienced "exceptional" conditions.

The funds could also go toward reimbursing farmers that traveled within 25 miles to buy hay or forage. Another $5 million would go to the Rural Finance Authority to fund drought relief loans.

Walz administration leaders also proposed that an additional $10 million be sent to the Department of Natural Resources to help the department, tribal nations, counties and landowners to replace seedlings and shade trees. And $3.3 million would be used to resolve well interference spurred by the drought and to set up systems that improve water efficiency.

"It's very important that as we go through this drought, which may be the shape of things to come with erratic weather caused by climate change, we are going to have a number of responses," Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said. "We have to protect the public resource."

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DNR officials said Minnesota's forests took a significant hit due to the historically dry conditions. And they set out a four-year plan to help recover trees lost as a result.

Republicans on the panel said the funds for farmers and ranchers were more pressing than water efficiency or tree replanting funds. And they urged Democrats to pull the provisions out so that an aide bill could more quickly move through the Capitol.

“I don’t think the governor’s office or apparently your office gets it," Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said. “I’m really deeply disappointed that we’d ball this thing together and that ag bill wasn’t already dealt with a long time ago. That should’ve been out of here."

The bill moves next to the House Ways and Means Committee and from there could travel to the House floor for a vote. The Senate has not yet introduced a similar bill, despite agreement from legislative leaders about the need to provide drought relief.

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Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter  @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email  dferguson@forumcomm.com.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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