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GOP fights Dayton effort to restrict some fertilizer use

State Reps. Paul Anderson of Starbuck, left, and Jeff Backer of Browns Valley talk before the Minnesota House debates a bill to require legislative approval for any nitrate use rules on Monday, April 16, 2018. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 3
Rep. Jeff Backer of Browns Valley applauds a visitor to the Minnesota House Monday, April 16, 2018, minutes before he brought up a bill that requires legislative approval before the state implements a rule restricting nitrates. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 3
Minnesota state Reps. Jeff Backer of Browns Valley, left, and Tony Jurgens of Cottage Grove talk Monday, April 16, 2018, during debate on Backer's bill to require legislative approval before a nitrate use rule is allowed. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 3

ST. PAUL — Legislative Republicans are fighting a Dayton administration proposal to restrict farmers' use of nitrate fertilizers.

The GOP-controlled Minnesota House voted 69-56 Monday, April 16, to require legislative approval before nitrate limits proposal by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton can be adopted. Dayton he wants the rule because "clean and safe drinking water is the right of every Minnesotan."

Bill sponsor Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, said that "farmers have been blindsided" by the nitrate rule and many other initiatives coming from the Dayton administration

"I share the governor's goal in ensuring that Minnesota's groundwater is clean and usable for future generations of Minnesotans," Backer said. "However, the timing of these proposed rules gave the Legislature little time to vet the proposal through the committee process."

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said that Backer's bill, which Dayton said he would veto, would mean that whatever final rule Dayton draws up late this year can be taken up by lawmakers when they convene for their 2019 session in January.

"The sky is not falling here," Anderson told Democrats.

Anderson, chairman of the House Agriculture Policy Committee, said Dayton's second draft of the rule is better than his first attempt. A final draft is due out within a couple of weeks.

Democrats said the rule is needed to protect water quality. Nitrates that get into water have proven unsafe for humans.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, D-Minneapolis, said the rule would help local communities around the state, as well as Minneapolis and St. Paul, which draw water out of the Mississippi River.

"Measures to reduce the overuse of harmful fertilizers are long overdue," Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, said, adding that the Groundwater Protection Act has been on the books 29 years before the current efforts to restrict nitrates.

Dayton said he went out of the way to make sure farmers were heard before he released his rule draft.

"Your attempts to undermine the (Agriculture) Department's efforts to continue engaging the public in this process would usurp the authority and responsibilities of the executive branch," Dayton wrote in a letter to Republican lawmakers. "Most importantly, they would deny Minnesotans their opportunities to make this rule even better, and ultimately improve drinking water quality and public health in our state."

Dayton said the final rule proposal will be formed based on 17 meetings his administration has held around the state, after contacts with 1,500 farmers and other landowners.

Most of northern Minnesota would not be affected by nitrate rules.

The nitrate proposal will come in two parts. The first would be a restriction of applying nitrate fertilizer on frozen ground in the fall.

Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, who as a state senator was prime author of 1989 groundwater legislation, said the fall fertilizer ban applies to less than 13 percent of Minnesota farmland. Also, he said, few farmers apply fertilizer on frozen ground.

The second part of the Dayton proposal would restrict nitrate use in groundwater areas of more than 50 communities scattered around the state with high nitrate concentrations in their water. Morse said that would apply to 100,000 acres of land and would affect the drinking water of 110,000 people.

The nitrate dispute is the latest in which Republicans have said Dayton does not treat farmers fairly. Last week, for instance, Republicans blamed him for a proposal that would have greatly increased fines on farmers who violate a law requiring a plant buffer between water and cropland. Dayton actually opposed the proposal, and wrote a letter criticizing it before the plan was withdrawn, but GOP lawmakers continue to blame him.

For the past couple of years, rural Republicans have been critical of Dayton's buffer proposal.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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