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A compromise bill on environmental policy relaxes a tougher permit for large animal feedlots. (Frans Ruiter on Unsplash)

Minnesota legislators this year tried to address many of the issues facing greater Minnesota, from farming pollution to broadband access, meat processing capacity and lack of child care. Here’s a look at some of the policy and spending proposals with outsized impact outside of the seven-county Twin Cities metro area that did — or didn’t — get through the majority-Democrat House and the Republican-led Senate this year.

Broadband grant program

State broadband officials recommended $120 million in new spending on high-speed internet infrastructure in Minnesota over the next two years. Lawmakers eventually voted for $70 million, which is still the largest one-time infusion of cash into Minnesota’s grant program. The $70 million was paid for by the federal stimulus plan approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden earlier this year. It’s still not enough money to completely close Minnesota’s longstanding disparities in internet access.

Animal feedlot regulations

New regulations on Minnesota’s largest animal feedlots aimed at preventing water pollution were relaxed by state lawmakers. Republicans and some Democrats said rules developed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to limit how and when farmers raising livestock can spread manure were inflexible and may not actually protect water in some circumstances. Despite pushback from MPCA leaders, who said their regulations were based in science to prevent contamination, lawmakers altered law so the agency can’t require farmers to take new steps to limit nitrogen pollution during October. Other new feedlot rules were left standing.

Police body cameras

Police officials in Minnesota say the number of departments that have officer-worn body cameras has increased in recent years, but many agencies, particularly in more rural areas, still lack them in part because of the cost of buying and maintaining them. Democrats proposed $2 million in grant funding for body cameras, and the Legislature initially agreed to $1 million for body cameras. House DFLers stripped the provision from a final budget plan, however, saying they opposed grants unless Senate Republicans approved new regulations on body camera usage and disclosure. A survey during June and July by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association found that out of 214 responding chiefs at municipal departments, 95 said they didn’t have body-worn cameras.

Infrastructure

The House DFL and Republican-led Senate had starkly different plans for a package of publicly financed construction projects, which are known at the Capitol as bonding bills. While the two sides appeared to make some concessions, they ultimately didn’t pass a major bonding bill that would fund things like building upkeep and clean water infrastructure that advocacy groups in Greater Minnesota had hoped for. That’s in part because bonding bills require a 60 percent vote, and House Republicans, frustrated with the larger budget deal, also never agreed to a bill. Lawmakers did approve a set of corrections to projects that were passed in the 2020 construction budget. Legislators also left open the possibility that they could come back later this year during an expected special session over extra front-line worker pay and pass a larger bonding bill.

If the plant is built, Huber Engineered Woods will build what’s called “oriented strand board” at the facility, which is a type of engineered wood used as construction material for roofs, walls and subfloors.

Huber Engineered Woods

If the plant is built, Huber Engineered Woods will build what’s called “oriented strand board” at the facility, which is a type of engineered wood used as construction material for roofs, walls and subfloors.

Incentives for timber product mill

Lawmakers approved up to $28.5 million in incentives over 10 years to help draw a new timber product mill to the city of Cohasset in Itasca County. The financing was announced near the end of budget negotiations during the June special session. The state and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board are also offering tens of millions in loans for Huber Engineered Woods LLC to build a $440 million plant to make what’s known as “oriented strand board,” which is used as construction material similar to plywood. Notably, lawmakers partially exempted the project from some environmental review.

Property tax refund for Enbridge

State officials agreed to pay Enbridge Energy $45 million for overvaluing the oil and gas company’s pipeline property after losing cases in Minnesota tax courts. In tandem with the deal, the Legislature approved nearly $30 million to cover the refund share owed by local governments along pipeline routes. While the Minnesota Department of Revenue had made faulty calculations, part of the hefty refund bill was set to fall on 13 counties, as well as cities, towns and school boards in northern Minnesota.

No refunds on heating bill spikes following Texas polar vortex

Legislators considered $100 million in refunds paid for by federal stimulus cash for some heat customers with high bills following a February winter storm in Texas that drove natural gas prices sky high. Some also supported a $15 million loan fund for municipal utilities facing budget crunches in the wake of the cold snap. Neither passed. Many of the municipal utilities found ways to shoulder the initial burden and pass costs on to customers. Rep. Jamie Long, a Minneapolis DFLer who chairs the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee, said ultimately there were higher priorities for most lawmakers to use stimulus cash, but said he hopes legislators still consider refunds for heat customers next year when lawmakers reconvene.

Reopening driver exam stations

The state’s transportation budget includes nearly $5.2 million to reopen all driver’s license examination stations that were closed in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In May of 2020, the state went from 93 exam stations to 15, though it has since reopened some. Senate Republicans pushed for all stations to reopen with money from the state budget. The Department of Vehicle Services said Tuesday 71 stations are still closed, the vast majority of which are in small cities outside the Twin Cities metro area like Elbow Lake, New Ulm, Park Rapids and Olivia.

A report from the state’s legislative auditor found the Department of Vehicle Services has been unable to consistently meet a 14-day deadline in state law for holding road tests for standard licenses, has experienced persistent staff shortages and used too much staff overtime to reduce a backlog in 2020.

The Legislature’s transportation budget also directs the governor’s Blue Ribbon Council on Information Technology, chaired by former Thomson Reuters Managing Director Rick King, to review how many exam stations the state should have and other issues related to closures and staffing problems.

Increasing meat processing capacity

Lawmakers this year aimed to increase the capacity of small and medium-scale meat processing to diversify the slaughter and butchering system following the shutdowns of massive plants in Minnesota and Iowa when workers got sick during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Legislature approved $1.5 million to help start new plants and upgrade and expand existing facilities. Lawmakers authorized $220,000 to hire more state inspection staff for the smaller-scale plants, $300,000 for a meat scientist at the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and $500,000 for a “mobile slaughter unit” that can work with livestock farmers and also two-year colleges with meat cutting programs. Another $150,000 will pay for grants to Central Lakes College in Brainerd to train students in meat cutting and butchery.

Child care

Legislators pumped federal stimulus money into Minnesota’s lagging child care industry, which suffers from high prices for parents and low pay for many workers and business owners. In total, Gov. Tim Walz said the state approved $597 million for child care, including more than $304 million for direct payments to providers to help keep their businesses afloat. For most grants, 70 percent must be dedicated to pay and benefits for providers. The state also authorized $22.5 million in grants for upgrades to child care facilities. Lack of affordable child care in rural areas has consistently hindered economic development in smaller Minnesota towns and cities.

The state increased maximum reimbursement rates in the child care assistance program subsidy (CCAP), which flows to providers that serve low-income families. The federal government recommends states set reimbursement rates at the 75th percentile of a regular market-rate survey for tuition costs, which means roughly three in four child care providers would have their full tuition costs covered by the CCAP payments.

Under Minnesota’s new laws, the rates will go from the 25th percentile of a 2018 survey of provider rates to the 40th percentile of a 2021 survey for infants and toddlers and the 30th percentile for preschool and school-aged kids.

Minnesota had been out of compliance with federal regulations coming into 2020, when lawmakers hiked rates to the 25th percentile to meet minimum standards. Previously, maximum reimbursement rates in Minnesota only covered the full cost of child care for 16.3 percent of in-home family providers and 23 percent of child care centers in a 2018 survey.

The Legislature also mandated that maximum reimbursement rates be updated to meet the 40th percentile of a 2024 survey starting in 2025 for infants and toddlers and the 30th percentile of a 2024 survey for preschool and school-aged children. In total, the state plans to spend $101.8 million on CCAP in the next two years, money that will also pay to reduce waiting lists for the state’s Basic Sliding Fee child care program under CCAP.

Reinsurance program extended

Senate Republicans negotiated a one-year extension of Minnesota’s reinsurance program, which aims to stabilize prices in the individual health insurance market. The GOP said the policy is popular among farmers who don’t get plans through employers. DFLers had wanted the program to expire.

Conservation Improvement Program updated

Lawmakers approved a bill to increase goals for utility energy savings that supporters say will result in fewer carbon emissions, lower bills for customers and new jobs. The legislation updates Minnesota’s Conservation Improvement Program, which requires utilities to cut energy consumption. The bill allows utilities in some circumstances to offer incentives for a customer to change from one power source to another, such as using an electric heat pump instead of natural gas — which some view as key to fighting climate change. It also boosts spending on low-income customers under the program.

Walker Orenstein reports on the state Legislature for MinnPost, with a focus on covering issues affecting Greater Minnesota.

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