Legislative Update: Where do MFU priorities stand midway through session

We are now halfway through the state legislative session, with only 10 weeks until the legislature’s constitutional adjournment on Monday, May 22. The midpoint also brings deadlines which mean that some policy items that haven’t yet been discussed are being kicked into the 2024 session. So—and knowing that dynamics can change quickly—where do some of MFU’s priorities stand?

First, the legislature and governor have already signed some policies into law. Allowing immigrants to earn driver’s licenses and a limited tax conformity package both passed in the first part of session and will both benefit farmers. That said, most of MFU’s priority issues are being heard in committee and are expected to move as part of omnibus bills during the end of session.

Next at MFU’s convention in November, delegates approved four Special Orders of Business, defining priorities for the upcoming session. Those were to:

  • Make health care more affordable and accessible.
  • Limit corporate control and ensure competitive markets.
  • Expand local and regional processing.
  • Create climate resilience.

Since the legislature convened on Jan. 3, MFU’s policy team has worked hard to drive progress in these five areas while also ensuring that MFU is an active and engaged voice on the breadth of issues addressed in our grassroots policy. In just over a month, we hope you see that we’ve made progress. Starting with Special Orders, here’s where we are:

  • Health care affordability – first, and included in the new DFL trifecta list of priorities is finally approving a MinnesotaCare public option that would allow farmers and others to ‘buy-in’ to state coverage. MFU has been a key voice in advancing this policy, testifying in multiple committees as it works through the process. Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, spoke about the DFL’s commitment to finally passing an affordable, public MinnesotaCare Buy-in (HF96), at a press conference in the first week of session. Senator Melissa Wicklund, DFL-Bloomington, is carrying this legislation (SF49) in the Senate.

While the MNCare public option faces hurdles—and is far from simple to design and implement—it is still very much in play this session. A parallel policy was again proposed by the governor’s office; key leaders are committed to getting this past into law. All of this work has been bolstered by strong testimony from MFU Vice President Anne Schwagerl (Big Stone), members Cindy VanDerPol (Chippewa), Danny Lundell (Goodhue) and others.

Second, MFU has been a key voice in calling for legislation (HF17, SF168) that would stop price gouging of generic and off-brand prescription drugs and establish a Prescription Drug Affordability Board (PDAB) with authority to lower drug costs by setting upper payment limits. Prescription drugs are a key driver of high healthcare costs. As MFU President Gary Wertish pointed out in written testimony, “Minnesotans spent $5.6 billion just on prescription drugs [in 2019] . . . up over 6% from the year prior.”

Similar to the MNCare Buy-in, this proposal is very much in play going into the second half of session.

Third and finally, MFU has been a key voice speaking out against the proposed merger between Sanford and M-Health Fairview. As Wertish has pointed out in press conferences and public comment forums, we have seen this before: megamergers lead to higher prices, hospital closures and lower quality service. MFU has also been working on legislation that would create more comprehensive pre-merger notification requirements for healthcare mergers and give the Attorney General the authority to enjoin or unwind a merger that does not protect the public interest (SF1681, HF402). This legislation is advancing in both bodies.

  • Competitive markets – a highlight of this session has been MFU leading on antitrust legislation that will ensure more level playing field for farmers, independent retailers, and others. We have also made the case that addressing the pricing power of large corporations is key to reining in inflation and helping families afford their lives.

First, MFU has been a vocal support of Attorney General Keith Ellison’s budget request for antitrust work. As proposed by the governor, this legislation would provide nearly $1 million in ongoing funding to hire additional attorneys in the antitrust division. It would also provide $1 million to establish a revolving fund to help pay for multistate litigation expenses.

Second, MFU has led in introduction three antitrust reforms led by Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, Sen. Bonnie Westlin, DFL-Plymouth, Rep. Steve Elkins, Bloomington, and Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis. While authors are motivated and MFU has done good work to educate lawmakers about the importance of these issues, each has yet to receive a hearing. These bills would:

    • Clarify Minnesota’s existing antitrust law by establishing definitions of monopoly and monopsony (a buyer monopoly) and making it clear that the exercise of monopsony power is a violation of the antitrust law (HF398, SF1069). This legislation would also increase Minnesota’s antitrust penalties, which have not been altered since the law was passed in 1971.
    • Replace Minnesota’s price discrimination statute with language from the Robinson-Patman Act, the federal law prohibiting price discrimination (HF399, SF1070). This will strengthen Minnesota’s protections against price discrimination that is used by large retailers to undercut smaller businesses and would also make it easier for Minnesota to engage in multistate price discrimination litigation with the 20+ other states that have RPA language in their statutes.
    • Create a new abuse of dominance standard that would establish criteria for having dominance in a market and would prohibit dominant firms from engaging in anticompetitive conduct, such as self-preferencing your own goods on an online marketplace like Amazon (HF1563, SF1744).

Third, and importantly, MFU has been working hard to finally establish a Right to Repair law in Minnesota (HF1337, SF1598). Led by Sen. Rob Kupec, DFL-Moorhead, and Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood, this proposal would grant farmers, consumers and independent repair technicians and mechanics access to the diagnostic tools and parts needed to fix agricultural equipment and consumer items such as smart phones and laptops. This bill has been acted favorable upon in the House Commerce Finance and Policy Committee and the Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee.

The Senate the Commerce Committee has acted favorably on the bill, although that committee removed agricultural equipment. MFU has been working hard to build the case for agriculture equipment. If you feel strongly about Right to Repair, you should contact your senator.

  • Local and regional processing – building on work in past sessions, MFU has expanded on legislative efforts to build a more distributed and resilient meat processing system across the state. Four bills would help local and regional processors those include:
    • Funding the AGRI Value Added program for meat and poultry processing (SF2620, HF2563), led by Sen. Kupec and Rep. Ethan Cha, DFL-Woodbury. This flagship program to support meat and poultry processors has a strong track record of success and continued investment is well-timed. First, helping processors start up, expand and modernize their facilities will help them serve more farmers, directly addressing the bottleneck experienced by our members across the state. Second—and much like farmers—many processors are reaching retirement age. Investing in upgrading their facilities will ensure that these businesses are able to transition to the next generation.
    • Establishing a meat processing navigator position at MDA (SF1592, HF1302). This proposal led by Sen. Kupec and Rep. Nathan Nelson, R-Hinckley, mirrors that brought forward by the governor in his budget and will help more processors get off the ground. Adding a navigator position will help MDA expand their direct service to processors who are working to get businesses started, helping them achieve inspected status, comply with regulations, and access state and federal funding. Not only that, but since it’s housed in the inspection program, this position will bring a one-to-one federal match.
    • Funding grants for worker training, recruitment, and retention (SF2681, HF2562). This investment in scholarships and worker placement is championed by Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, and Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura, DFL-Minneapolis. It is well-timed with two colleges—Central Lakes in Staples and Ridgewater in Willmar—starting meat cutting technical training programs to teach students the art of meat cutting. As the state went for a generation without any formal training for meat cutting, lack of a trained workforce continues to be a top challenge for meat processors as they work to meet demands from livestock producers and consumers. This program will leverage existing partnerships to help more students—including those for whom English is a second language—access the technical training programs and find employment in the industry.
    • Funding training grants to help navigate regulations (SF861, HF1303). Led by Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, and Rep. Nelson, this legislation will similarly help processors navigate a complex regulatory environment. Providing support for processors or their employees to attend trainings at these colleges or other institutions could help those businesses up their inspection status, add new species, incorporate halal, kosher, or other practices, or execute a generational transition

As President Wertish said in written remarks to the committee:

“Taken together, this work will help rebuild a system that was long neglected in Minnesota. We have a long way to go, but we are grateful for your committee’s work to build a food system that is more distributed, resilient, and fair for workers, consumers, and farmers.”

  • Climate resilience the economy has been a focus for the DFL-led trifecta and was emphasized in the governor’s budget. For MFU’s part, we’ve been focused on policies and programs that will help farmers lead in voluntary work that builds climate resilience on working lands. In this work, some key initiatives stand out.

First, MFU has been proud to partner with an array of agriculture organizations to support and expand MDA’s soil health pilot program. To date, the program has focused on helping farmers purchase equipment needed implement soil health practices on their farm. The expansion of the program led by Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, and Rep. Kristi Pursell, DFL-Northfield, would allow MDA to provide cost share for a broader set of expenses that can be a barrier to implementing soil health practices. This proposal has been heard by both agriculture committees and will be considered for the final agriculture omnibus bill.

Second, we have worked hard to support funding Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) through a new local government aid program that will provide them with the long-term funding they need to continue to provide excellent service to farmers. This proposal is advancing in both bodies and will be under consideration for a final tax package.

Finally—and stemming from MFU’s work on the Farmers Guide to Carbon Markets—we’ve advanced legislation barring confidentiality clauses in carbon market contracts. Transparency will help these markets develop in a way that is fair to farmers. This proposal—led by Sen. Kunesh and Rep. Pursell—was heard by both the House and Senate and will be considered for a final agriculture policy bill.

Of course, this is just a snapshot of our legislative work. We have also been spending a significant amount of time working to establish a grain indemnity fund, expand the beginning farmer tax credit, expand farm permits beyond just farm kids, expand funding for broadband, and fund cooperative development grants at MDA. We’re glad to report that these and other priorities are still in play this session. As always, if you have questions, thoughts, or concerns about MFU’s legislative work, please contact Stu at (320) 232-3047 (C) or stu@mfu.org.