Legislative Update: Expanded farm driver’s licenses

The past week was another full one for MFU at the State Capitol with consideration of funding and policy bills ramping up in committees following the release of the governor’s budget request. The team has also been working hard to prepare for a successful MFU Lobby Day Drive-in at the Capitol on Feb. 15. Meetings start at 10 a.m. and all members are welcome and encouraged to attend. Sign up here—it’s not too late!

With a record shattering $17.6 billion surplus and a trifecta earning unified control of state government for the first time in nearly a decade, this will undoubtedly be a banner year for policymaking. It’s up to us to ensure that the voices of family farmer members are heard by lawmakers and reflected in the policies they advance this year. Lobby Day is an important way we do that and we’d be eager to have you join us.

Last week, the state House approved legislation that MFU supported to allow immigrants to earn a drivers license.

“We believe that allowing immigrants to earn a drivers’ license would respect these contributions, improve public safety, and help farmers who rely on workers being able to travel to work,” said MFU President Gary Wertish in a letter to House members ahead of the vote. The legislation now heads to the Senate where it is set for a vote in the coming days.

This week too started out with a discussion of driver’s licenses, this time in the Senate Transportation Committee. MFU Yellow Medicine County Officer, Tim Velde, provided strong testimony in support of legislation that would expand the opportunity to earn a restricted farm license to all 15-year-olds—not only those whose parents own a farm. MFU brought this proposal (SF1334) to the bill’s author, Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, after Tim raised it at his county convention and delegates to state convention restated their support—a great example of our grassroots policy at work!

“I believe this will make our laws more equitable, expanding opportunities in agriculture, and setting more young people on a path to build a career in farming,” said Hawj in presenting his bill to the committee. “[MFU’s] members support this change, because it’s often difficult to find young people who are interested in getting involved in their operation. And when they do, this limit on farm licenses can be a barrier.”

The bill would retain all the current protections under law. Newly eligible young people would still need to complete a certified drivers ed course, pass the driving exam, and submit signed affidavits from their parents and the farmer. And the license would only allow them to drive during daylight hours, within 40 miles of the farm, and to assist with farm work. After some discussion—and support from coauthor, Transportation Chair Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis,—the committee laid the bill over for possible inclusion in the transportation omnibus package

On the agriculture front, bills to replenish the Rural Finance Authority’s revolving loan account continue to move quickly in both houses. Last Wednesday, the Senate Committee unanimously approved Chair Aric Putnam’s, DFL-St. Cloud, proposal which aligns with what was passed in the House committee last week. Importantly, these bills would prevent the agency from running out of funding later this year, allowing them to continue to make Beginning Farmer Loan’s and other without interruption.

In written remarks to the committee, Wertish shared that “there is precedent for funding this program early, ahead of a full bonding package.”

“In 2017, when the program was also facing a funding shortfall, funding was passed with bipartisan support and made effective in February that year. Again in 2020, full RFA funding was approved and signed by the governor in March.”

MFU has also continued strong support for finally finding stable funding for core capacity at Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs). Last Wednesday and again early this week, MFU submitted testimony in support of a proposal to create a new local government aid program to fund SWCDs out of the tax bill.

“The 2021 drought was the worst since at least the 1980s and that came soon after our wettest fall on record in 2019,” said Wertish in written remarks. “In response to these challenges, our members are actively working to adopt new practices that make them more resilient and promote soil health and water quality. Consistent and reliable funding for SWCDs is a foundational step toward helping our members achieve these important goals, benefiting both their individual operations and the entire state.”

After last Wednesday’s hearing on SWCD funding, Pine County Farmers Union hosted a winter social with their local SWCD—a great example of grassroots connecting back to our advocacy at the capitol.

Finally and importantly, on Monday of last week, the Senate voted unanimously to approve the confirmation of Thom Petersen as the Commissioner of Agriculture. Needless to say this came with enthusiastic support from MFU and virtually all of agriculture. Thom’s uniquely accessible, accountable, and humble style of leadership is admired by our organization and we’re confident that family farmers and the entire state will benefit from four more years of his leadership.

To quote Wertish’s letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee on Petersen’s confirmation:

“In his first year as Commissioner, Petersen began framing his work around ‘challenges and opportunities.’ And there were more challenges than anyone could have anticipated. A record setting late harvest, a trade war, a global pandemic that endangered workers and shut down packing plants, a once-in-a-generation drought, the return of high path avian influenza, and now skyrocketing input costs. Petersen could have easily led the department reactively, responding to each in kind. But while facing these challenges, the Commissioner did not lose sight of the opportunities, starting the Emerging Farmers Office, developing markets for new crops, building out local meat processing capacity, investing in soil health, and championing the next generation of farmers.

“In this way, the Commissioner channels the hopes of the farmers he talks to every day. I can’t think of anyone better prepared to lead us through these challenges and help us take advantage of new opportunities.”

As always, if you have questions, thoughts or concerns about MFU’s legislative work, please reach out to Stu at (320) 232-3047 (C) or stu@mfu.org.