Minnesota Republicans target water quality law for repeal in session

Published 9:19 am Friday, January 13, 2017

ST. PAUL — House Republicans are targeting the state’s new law meant to boost water quality, putting Gov. Mark Dayton on defense over one of his marquee initiatives.

The so-called buffer law has been a source of contention among many Minnesota farmers since Dayton first proposed it in 2015, the same year it eventually passed. It requires 50-foot setbacks around public waterways starting in November, while extra protections around other water sources aren’t required until 2018.

Pushback has steadily chipped away at the measure, limiting which waterways are subject to the law while some counties have called for a delay in implementation and agricultural groups have balked at the state’s rollout. A group of House Republicans introduced a bill this week that would repeal the law entirely.

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“The bottom line is this is land that is owned by private citizens,” said Rep. Steve Green, the bill’s chief author.

“The easiest thing is to repeal it and start over with something else.”

Dayton pitched the buffer measure in 2015 as a way to improve water quality by limiting harmful agricultural runoff into lakes, streams and ditches after several state studies showed an alarming number of waterways across the state were not safe for swimming or fishing. But many farmers and agricultural groups balked, viewing Dayton’s solution as forcing them to take land out of production with no compensation.

Despite watering down the bill before it passed — and then again last year to soothe tensions — agricultural community representatives say there’s still lingering animosity between farmers and the Dayton administration. Gary Wetish, interim president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, called Green’s bill a “show of force” that the fight is not over.

“There’s a lot of heartburn on how the buffer bill came about. It was a top down approach,” Wertish said.

Dayton himself has conceded he didn’t involve stakeholder enough before unveiling the original proposal. He entered 2017 facing stiff odds against a GOP-controlled Legislature in his bid to improve the state’s water quality, a top priority before leaving office in 2018.

“The Governor says he will veto any bill that repeals the current buffer statute,” spokesman Sam Fettig said in a statement. “The Governor is open to discussing ways to improve the current law.”

Green said the state agencies overseeing implementation of the law have continually overstepped their bounds, angering farmers in his northwestern Minnesota district and across the state.

Part of problem is that key funding to make the buffers work is still in flux. Appropriations for counties to oversee the rollout never went through after Dayton vetoed last year’s tax bill. And critical funding to offset farmers’ losses is tied up in a public works package that failed in 2016 — Dayton has proposed additional money in new tax and public construction bills for 2017.

Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said securing that funding would ease a lot of consternation. He and the farmers he works with have plenty of misgivings about the law, but Paap said it’s better not to start over.

“This is a work in progress. I think a lot of us in agriculture are committed to making it better,” he said.