BUFFALO, Minn. -Minnesota Milk Producers' Executive Director Bob Lefebvre and lobbyist Daryn McBeth of Gray Plant Mooty provided an overview of the 2015 legislative session through a webinar on Aug. 6.
"This was one of the most successful legislative sessions for issues impacting dairy farmers that we've had in over 15 years," Lefebvre said.
During the 2015 legislative session, McBeth focused on several specific dairy issues.

Environmental permit streamlining, review and MPCA Citizen's Board
The environmental permitting process is one McBeth spent the most time with.
"It was one of our biggest successes of the session," McBeth said.
This year, legislation looked at different barriers and different points in the permitting process that can substantially delay permits and cause uncertainty in the permitting process.
One of those points they focused on was the final review and interjection from the citizens' advisory board for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
"It's unusual for an advisory committee, especially in the environmental sector, to be essentially governed by a board of directors appointed by the governor made up of citizens who don't have any technical experience on the matter, but be empowered to overrule an agency of staff and experts and records," McBeth said. "It's been an irritant and an inappropriate delay in the environmental permitting process."
During this session, legislation was introduced to amend the citizens' board and have it take on more of an advisory role.
"This amendment would take away the boards' discretion to assert environmental review and overrule the agency," McBeth said.
That amendment made it into the omnibus policy bill and was modified further to repeal the entire citizens' board.
"They thought it would be the cleanest way to deal with it," McBeth said. "They were concerned about costs and inefficiencies to have an advisory board."
According to Lefebvre, this change received a great deal of attention.
"Certain groups have been criticizing this saying it is going to lessen our environmental standards and take away the citizens input," he said. "But there's still plenty of opportunity for citizens to provide their input through their township board, planning and zoning board at the county level and through the MPCA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System/ State Disposal System (NPDES/SDS) permit."
In the end, the citizens' board was repealed.
"We're pleased," Lefebvre said. "We took away a process and added more certainty to the permitting process for farmers while still allowing the same amount of citizen input into the process."
However, Governor Dayton, by executive order, established a citizens' advisory board for the MPCA recently.
"It will only be an advisory role," McBeth said. "It's one small step back, but it will be temporary through Governor Dayton's term."

Stray voltage
Stray voltage also came up early in the session.
"It's a reoccurring problem affecting milk production and instances on dairy farms," McBeth said. "It's a sensitive topic for electrical cooperatives and the dairy industry."
During the session, legislation was introduced, which would affect how law suits alleging stray voltage would proceed, specifically limiting who could be considered an expert witness for the dairy farmer and what that witness could attest to.
It stated that in order to be an expert witness testifying for stray voltage, the witness would have to be a graduate with an electrical engineering degree or a certified electrical engineer.
"They couldn't be experts like reputable veterinarians and nutritionists that would testify how it was affecting cow comfort and milk production," McBeth said. "That was a concern for us."
However, the legislation was voted down.
"That was a success," McBeth said. "But I suspect it could come back next year."

Buffer Strips
Another focus was Governor Mark Dayton requiring wider perennial grass buffer strips along public waterways and drainage ditches.
"There was some compromise from the governor's position to what many of the agricultural groups wanted at the table," McBeth said.
The law as it stands now requires a 30-foot minimal width or 50-foot average width buffer strip along public waterways to be in place by November 2017 and 16.5-foot wide buffer strips along both sides of drainage ditches by November 2018.
The soil and water conservation districts will be enforcing this with what McBeth said was a more moderate fine of $500 if not in place by the required dates.
This session also provided with $22 million over a two-year period to the Board of Water and Soil Conservation to help soil and water conservation districts uniformly get this implemented.
"That will also help farmers with the cost of putting them in," McBeth said.

Dairy inspection program/budget
Since it was a budget year, McBeth said the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's budget had some areas that were in need of more resources, one of which was the dairy inspection program.
Initially the government proposed filling the gap in dairy inspections funding with half from the general fund and half from on farm inspection fees raising it from $50 per farm for Grade A inspection to $150.
"We were hoping that roughly million dollar gap would be addressed by the general fund like other neighboring states," McBeth said.
But it was a compromise. Half the funding remained from the general fund while the other half will come from a milk volume/milk processor fee raising it from .7 cents per hundredweight to 1.1 cents per hundredweight.
"We felt that was more sustainable long term," McBeth said. "Funding the inspection program through a milk volume basis, which is stable to growing in Minnesota as 0pposed to farm numbers."

Livestock Investment Grant
Although the funding to the AGRI budget was cut a little, McBeth said they were able to restore the funding.
"Out of the $2 million in the Livestock Investment Grant, dairy receives more than any other livestock species," Lefebvre said. "Keeping it completely funded was critical and we did it."

Drivers license for undocumented workers, overtime pay
Despite a lot of success, a law was not put in place to allow undocumented workers to obtain a drivers license.
"Progress was made," McBeth said. "But there is still work to do."
The legislation provision for overtime pay exemption for dairy farms didn't go through.
"It didn't make it over the goal line," McBeth said. "But we are still working on it."
Even though they weren't successful with every issue, McBeth said it was still a success.
"We made progress moving forward on the offensive to help dairy farmers break down barriers or add incentives while stopping things that could have hurt us," he said.
Looking ahead to the next session, McBeth is ready to hit the ground running.
"We are still reaching out to get our priorities in front of the elected officials," he said. "We don't stop when the session is done."