An unlikely mix: agriculture to veterans’ issues

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Lawmakers in every state will be talking about Minnesota’s biodiesel initiative, and “we will be viewed as a model.” That’s the prognostication from Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar) about a provision contained in the omnibus agriculture and veterans affairs bill now on its way to the governor.

The conferred bill, HF3902/SF3683*, sponsored by Juhnke and Sen. Jim Vickerman (DFL-Tracy), passed the House May 7 123-9 after being passed 64-0 by the Senate a couple of hours earlier.

The bill contains an unlikely mix of provisions relating to pesticide use, livestock producer grants and veterans issues. But it is the proposed incremental increase to the state’s biodiesel mandate that will make the bill memorable, Juhnke said. “You all can be proud to continue to lead in this field. … This is a very good bill going out and even a better bill coming in,” he said.

Rep. Ken Tschumper (DFL-La Crescent) tried to rekindle an earlier floor debate concerning the use of food crops for fuels. “I believe we are going in the wrong direction regarding biodiesel. … The whole world is recognizing that biofuels are contributing to the dramatic rise in food prices, and we’re probably going to be back here next year rescinding this mandate.”

The bill lays the groundwork for increasing the state’s biodiesel mandate incrementally from the current 2 percent blend to 20 percent by 2015. Once the new blend requirement is reached, it would be effective May through September only, with the minimum content for the remainder of the year set at 15 percent.

When the original bill left the House, it contained a provision that would lay out policy for industrial hemp production in the state. Although Juhnke insisted it was noncontroversial and the crop would not be allowed at this time, it did not make it past the conference committee.

Those hoping to improve their livestock operations would see help from the bill. The language allows for competitive grants to eligible livestock producers wanting to invest in their operations.

Juhnke said the language would only act as a “placeholder” in statute for the grant program. Implementation hinges on provisions in HF1812, the omnibus supplemental budget bill, which would provide up to $50,000 for improvements to the operations.

Other agriculture-related provisions include:

• eliminating the ethanol deficiency payment to any entity that quits producing ethanol on a commercial scale at the qualifying location;

• a definition for animal chiropractic, its scope of practice and educational criteria for licensure;

• a requirement for pesticide collection, including annual disposal opportunities to be made available in each county;

• a definition of vending machine to mean a self-service device that not only accepts coins and tokens, but credit cards;

• providing for pumps used to blend gasoline and ethanol to be clearly labeled “Flex-Fuel Vehicles only;” and

• encouraging Greater Minnesota counties adopting or updating comprehensive plans to consider open space goals.

Veterans provisions

After several reports highlighted safety concerns at the Minneapolis Veterans Home, the Legislature began to address the issue by moving responsibility for the facility to the Department of Veterans Affairs. This bill supports the governor-established Veterans Health Care Advisory Council and its duties to develop a new vision for the veterans homes and more efficient delivery of veterans services. It also lays out a focus for the department’s Strategic Planning Group to review and make capital, maintenance and operation recommendations to the Legislature. The group would look at alternative operational models and additional state veterans home locations. A report would be due to the Legislature by Jan. 15, 2009, on the status of the project priority list, which could include recommendations for new veterans homes.

With the available federal funds for a new veterans cemetery near Duluth, a study is called for to evaluate the actual need for veterans cemeteries, including locating one in the southern part of the state. The bill also expands the framework for operating state-run veterans cemeteries. It is specific that no new staff be hired for a new cemetery without explicit legislative approval.

The state keeps no comprehensive listing of those with Minnesota ties who have died in combat, but that would change through the bill. The department would be asked to maintain the list that would be made available at the discretion of the commissioner for ceremonial and honorary purposes.

Other veterans provisions include protection for reservist-owned business from civil court proceedings for a minimum of 60 days, while the person is deployed; and preventing employers from discriminating against the family of service members when requesting unpaid leave to attend deployment, reintegration and other eligible military events.

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